‘Desperation Road’ takes violent route to small-town redemption

The AJC bookshelf
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The AJC bookshelf

It takes a little chutzpah for a Mississippi-based author to start a book with one of the most famous quotes from the state’s most famous writer.

But that’s just how Michael Farris Smith begins his novel “Desperation Road.” Smith precedes the first chapter of the blood-flecked character study with an epigraph from William Faulkner, “The past is never dead.” Smith leaves off the quote’s kicker, “It’s not even past.”

As a rising Southern novelist, Smith seems less intent on drawing a comparison between himself and the Nobel laureate than acknowledging a literary influence. The line certainly fits the themes of “Desperation Road.” The idea that previous actions – whether accidental or deliberate – have lasting repercussions on the present frequently drives the story. If name-checking Faulkner reflects a little artistic ambition, well, Smith’s aspirations largely pay off with his third novel.

“Desperation Road” starts out like a noir tale involving violence, revenge and family in a small Mississippi town near the Louisiana border. Frequently when the plot comes to crossroads, Smith turns away from the direction of genre pulp and toward something a little more grounded and merciful.

The early chapters set a grim, lurid tone as we meet single mother Maben and her young daughter Annalee at the tail end of a downward spiral. A former addict now off drugs but homeless, Maben drifts to a truck stop motel and considers selling her body. She balks at the last minute but still gets picked up by a loathsome police officer, and a nightmarish turn of events leaves Maben as a fugitive holding a murder weapon. Through Maben’s pitfalls, Smith presents a harrowing account of female vulnerability at the bottom rung of the economic ladder.

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“Desperation Road” by Michael Farris Smith

“Desperation Road” by Michael Farris Smith
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“Desperation Road” by Michael Farris Smith

Meanwhile, “Desperation Road’s” second protagonist, Russell, is released from prison having served his time for causing a fatal car accident while drunk. Haunted and guilt-ridden, Russell tries to piece his life back together but endures harassment from his victim’s brother, who channels his rage and frustration into plans for revenge.

Maben’s and Russell’s lives eventually intersect with significant consequences for them both. Smith also extends the ensemble to include such points of view as Russell’s ex-fiancee Sarah, his supportive father Mitchell and his old football teammate Ward, now a sheriff’s deputy.

With its premise of a convict’s release having a wide impact on a rural community, “Desperation Road” resembles the similarly nuanced Southern-set TV series “Rectify.” Like the show, the novel strikes a balance between showing the timeless quality of small town life and including contemporary details, such as the book’s acknowledgement of the plight of immigrant workers.

Smith writes in spare, sharply observed language like a more colloquial take on Cormac McCarthy’s voice in “The Border Trilogy.” At one point he describes a meager room that includes “a chair in the corner that wasn’t meant to rock but Maben cut holes in tin cans and slipped them onto the chair feet and it rocked just right.” The steady accumulation of phrases in Smith’s prose conveys a sense of control even as the characters’ lives seem marked by random misfortunes.

Between scenes of blackmail, beatings and standoffs at gunpoint, “Desperation Road” finds characters grappling with some of life’s big issues, like “trying hard to understand a God that would allow the weakness of innocence and the strength of evil.” Sometimes the religious imagery gets heavy-handed; Smith repeatedly mentions a concrete Virgin Mary that Mitchell puts in his yard.

The spiritual matters feel a bit pro forma but nevertheless authentic to people attempting to deal with dark times. Smith’s writing paradoxically feels more transcendent when depicting earthly matters, like Russell hearing a Lynyrd Skynyrd cover band raise the roof at a bar. Descriptions of self-destructive characters drinking while driving at night convey a sense of liberation that’s almost intoxicating to the reader.

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Author Michael Farris Smith

Author Michael Farris Smith
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Author Michael Farris Smith

While much of the book finds Russell and Maben contending with their internal demons and external threats, Boyd the deputy moves increasingly to the fore. Boyd’s not a damaged soul like the others, just a family man putting on a little weight and trying to uphold the law. The narrative shifts to his dogged investigation and occasionally jokey interactions with an almost palpable sense of relief, compared to the dread overhanging Russell and Maben’s chapters.

By the end, Boyd and Russell’s ex, Sarah, face difficult decisions that provide intriguing counterpoints to the novel’s more melodramatic turns. Where Russell and Maben endure perils that put them at the fringes of society, Boyd and Sarah live squarely in the mainstream, and while they have more options when weighing their respective dilemmas, they both have much more to lose.

The more law-abiding characters turn out to be the more relatable, and readers can’t help but wonder how they’d react to similar predicaments. Ironically, the scenes that feel like detours on “Desperation Road” reach the most affecting destinations. And even characters who walk the straight and narrow discover that their past will catch up with them.

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FICTION

‘Desperation Road’

By Michael Farris Smith,

Little, Brown and Co.

289 pages, $26