No, this is not a travelogue describing must-see places to visit in Arkansas, nor is it a history of the Opportunity State. Rather, it is a finely crafted, Tarantino-esque mystery written with dark humor, intelligence, and hard-boiled prose. John Brandon’s writing style in his remarkable debut novel suggests the finely-honed skills of a writer with several decades of books under his belt.
The novel is more about the roguish, drug-dealing, murdering characters and how they became the way they are than the state of Arkansas (which gets enough bad press as it is, deservedly so or not), though some mention is made of certain cities in which the characters live and see action, like Little Rock and Pine Bluff. The title of the book - Arkansas - is what first attracted me to it, as I am a resident of the state. The fully fleshed, idiosyncratic characters and their often bloody adventures are what held my attention and made me keep turning pages to the end.
Much of the first section of the novel, called “Boredom Is Beautiful,” is spent introducing the readers to most of the main characters, chapter by chapter. For that reason, and also because the characters’ pasts and backgrounds aren’t told chronologically, I felt sort of thrown into the middle of a character’s life. For instance, in the first chapter, we’re introduced to a Puerto Rican American named Swin Ruiz and Kyle, the man he eventually teams up with dealing drugs. The time-jumping narrative took awhile to get used to, delayed really getting to know the characters, and made the novel a little slow moving initially. Once the characters have been introduced, though, the action picks up considerably.
Swin and Kyle are transporting drugs to different Southern states for a mysterious individual nicknamed “Frog” or “Froggy,” who got into the business himself when he ran a sort of pawn shop at which a “customer” left behind 19 pounds of PCP for Frog to sell. He eventually began recruiting other people to help him. Swin and Kyle work directly for an employee of Frog’s, Pat Bright, who is also set up to be a park ranger. When not transporting drugs, Swin and Kyle do jobs around the national park, and Bright sends them off to do drug drops when he gets word from Frog that a deal is imminent.
One part of the book is strongly reminiscent of the iconic scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs in which a bank robber duct-tapes a cop to a chair and tortures him while the Stealers Wheel song “Stuck in the Middle with You” plays. Swin and Kyle have dropped off a shipment of volleyballs filled with pills to a man in Louisiana. The man’s crazy nephew follows the pair back to the park with the idea of taking the bag of money his uncle paid them and starting a new life for himself somewhere else, far from his uncle’s cruel, overbearing clutches.
The nephew, Nick, pays a visit first to the trailer of the unsuspecting Bright. He ties Bright to a chair, and swings a hammer at him, breaking one of his hips; Bright doesn’t even know why Nick is there. Nick hits him again, in Bright’s upper arm, and not knowing what else to do, Bright speaks:
“My name is Bright.” His feet were shaking. “It’s only decent I tell you, I’m
a state employee.”
The action and the body count really pick up from this point on. The sparse, often darkly witty writing, builds tension and suspense. Since the book is about criminals, you might feel a little strange rooting for some of them to succeed, but as with Tarantino’s films, you find yourself drawn in by the characters’ quirks, motivations, and differing ideas about morality. Arkansas a stellar work of contemporary literature, a book which might grow to be considered to be a classic with the passing of years. Pretty good for an author’s debut. I can’t wait to read more from John Brandon in the future.
“This hammer is a Craftsman. If I wear it out, I can trade it in for a new one.”