Some lives get so ugly and hopeless that, even to an outsider, crystal meth and murder look perfectly sensible. That’s one of several Faulknerian themes baked into this thin, memorable novel.
The family at the heart of this story is impossibly poor and seemingly stuck in the red mud of Mississippi’s gulf coast. It never gets any better. The dear and the innocent are slain and their ghosts haunt. The desperate and unwary have babies with men who their parents know are suited only for life in prison. And the children, the simple ones who are slapped down when they speak of severe hunger, they study the scenes. They try to guess which path might permit their survival. You might find yourself recognizing advantages you didn’t know you had.
The entire book is written in the first person. The main characters speak directly to the reader, a clever device that allows different perspectives on the characters’ slow suffocation. The essence of the characters’ lives feels very John Steinbeck. An hour before dinner, their first option is to go in the yard and kill a chicken. They operate at the blind mercy of the police, the visiting schedule at the prison and the irregular generosity of relatives with stable lives. The narrative arc is pure William Faulkner. Life and death are practical matters viewed, necessarily, in terms of how they benefit those affected. Under threat of imminent arrest, for example, the only logical option is to swallow one’s entire stash of meth. The risk of overdose is understood and assumed. It will be considered when there is sufficient time.
Ms. Ward wonderfully sketches characters and the influences in their lives. She shares details that say so much. “Big Joseph is my White grandpa,” says Jojo, a boy of twelve, as he introduces himself. “Pop my Black one. I’ve lived with Pop since I was born. I’ve seen my White Grandpa twice.” The writer gives the characters voices that, mostly, resonate as true and paints in bold colors. Early on, Jojo tells the reader: “Back when I was younger, back when I still called Leonie ‘Mama,’ she told me flies eat shit. That was when there was more good than bad, when she’d push me on the swing Pop hung from one of the pecan trees in the front yard, or when she’d sit next to me on the sofa and watch TV with me, rubbing my head. Before she was more gone than here. Before she started snorting crushed pills.”
But the plot, the circumstances and the book’s conclusion don’t feel new. The writer has not plowed fresh ground. She writes with intelligence, with seemingly realistic references to contemporary forces and she has mastered the vocabulary of brutality. She is easily talented enough to leave you with a breathless sense of having briefly lived in a place that you wish did not exist. However, communicating exclusively in the first person may have posed too much of a challenge. The nearly illiterate characters too often take on the cadence and the complex language of an educated and experienced writer. One character speaks of air that “ululates through the room.” Another speaks of a job that someone has “tasked me to do [that] will usher her away.” Irregularities like those take one out of the story completely. This book marinates you in the odors of modern Mississippi poverty and pulls you out too often with language that calls to mind the image of a writer and her laptop sitting in a New Orleans Starbucks.