Michael Farris Smith’s new novel “Blackwood” may be set in the here and now, but there is nothing modern about it. It is a timeless story of good and evil that could occur any time or place. And yet, its themes could not be more relevant in this age of high anxiety and rampant homelessness.
Red Bluff is a virtual ghost town in Mississippi that is so desperate to increase its population, it’s giving away storefronts to artists who will live there. Colburn, a sculptor who turns scrap metal into art, seizes the opportunity and sets up shop. Before long, he strikes up a romance with Celia, who runs the town’s one bar.
Colburn isn’t the only newcomer in Red Bluff. When their beat-up Cadillac breaks down while passing through town, a destitute family of drifters sets up camp in a kudzu-covered ravine. While the man explores the woods all day, the woman and the boy collect bottles and cans to recycle. “The three of them moving about this world in an unspoken language of grunts and nudges and handwaves. Keeping out of sight in shadows of alleys or in abandoned warehouses or within the woods.”
Watching over these goings-on is Myer, a good-natured, middle-aged sheriff whose crime-fighting skills have lain dormant in the sleepy town where the biggest excitement is a brawl at Celia’s bar.
Colburn’s arrival has generated curiosity among the townspeople, who soon discover he has a history in Red Bluff. He was born there, and his father hanged himself there when Colburn was a boy. He’d left to escape the stigma of his family’s tragedy, but — haunted by memories — he’s been drawn back. Colburn’s presence has also piqued the wrath of fellow bar patron Dixon, who has longed for Celia from afar since boyhood.
“Blackwood” is steeped in the Southern landscape, a topic with which Smith, a Mississippi native, is intimately familiar. In his hands, kudzu becomes a menacing character that creeps in windows and up through floorboards. It swallows houses and cars, and provides cover for unspeakable acts. Voices real or imagined can be heard emanating from its depths. Vines can be seen “skulking across the land with a demented patience.” Worse yet, “down below this stretching canvas of green was the blackwood where creatures crawled and sunlight fought through pecks of space between the leaves.”
Something evil is brewing beneath those vines.
Southern noir has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years, and “Blackwood” certainly has all the qualifications: high body count, delusional characters, supernatural elements and a touch of the grotesque. But the luminous prose and depth of emotion Smith conjures in this beguiling book makes “Blackwood” one of the more literary entries in the canon.
The portrait he paints of twilight as observed from Myer’s lakeside yard nearly made this displaced Southerner weep. “Gnats tapped on the water. Lightning bugs blinked in the twilight. Splotches of clouds sat in the low sky touched in the day’s last colors. Through the open window over the kitchen sink he could hear the clinks and clatters of Hattie clearing the plates and washing dishes.”
Smith has a style of writing that is clean and straightforward. He uses punctuation, particularly commas and quotations, sparingly. Sentences and chapters start out short and terse but grow longer and more tangled as the story develops. There is an inclination to read the book quickly, but the beauty of the language demands you slow down to savor it.
As the story progresses, parallels between Colburn and the feral boy surface. Both are products of neglectful parents and are forced to raise themselves from childhood. They share similar losses. One pushes around a shopping cart filled with recycled bottles and cans. The other drives around a flatbed truck loaded with scrap metal.
“(B)oy you are my brother in this world. And I wish I would have known it,” observes Colburn after it’s too late.
The specter of our country’s current homeless crisis hangs over “Blackwood.” The fact that the names of the family members remain unknown reverberates. Even the decent, sympathetic people of Red Bluff don’t broach the dividing line between “us” and “them.” Celia feeds the boy every day, but she never asks his name or quizzes him about his circumstances.
“He ate with his face down to the plate and sometimes he used a fork but most of the time only his fingers, and as soon as he was done he hopped off the barstool and hurried out of the door as if she might somehow be able to take it all back before it could digest.”
Myer feels remorse for his failure to take action. “You saw them and you let them be and you knew something was not right. But you did nothing. You watched,” he berates himself.
If there’s a lesson to be learned from “Blackwood,” it’s that ignoring the downtrodden can have devastating consequences for the whole community.
As the characters close in on their calamitous collision course, “Blackwood” creeps up to the precipice of horror genre territory. But Smith has bigger ideas on his mind. It’s not redemption exactly, but a reckoning, which for Southern noir is as happy an ending as you can get. One thing is certain, though. After reading this book, one may be hard-pressed to look at a ravine covered in kudzu and not think about what dark secrets lurk there.
By Michael Farris Smith
Little, Brown and Company
304 pages, $27