Book review: Toxic waste sets satirical thriller ‘Liquid Snakes’ into motion

Atlanta locations, institutions figure prominently.
Stephen Kearse is the author of "Liquid Snakes."
Courtesy of Soft Skull Press

Credit: Soft Skull Press

Combined ShapeCaption
Stephen Kearse is the author of "Liquid Snakes." Courtesy of Soft Skull Press

Credit: Soft Skull Press

Credit: Soft Skull Press

Tangled and disentangled at once, Stephen Kearse’s “Liquid Snakes” is both a diabolical thriller and wicked political satire set in, and unleashed upon, Atlanta.

It’s a swinging beaker-bubbler, for sure, so far out-of-the-ordinary that it tests the limits of comprehension, moving at such speed there’s hardly time to consider the cosmic amorality of its main player, a “former chemist” named Kenny Bomar, the book’s tragic fiend.

Kenny has recently split from his wife — their marriage couldn’t survive the loss of their baby, Saskia, a stillborn victim of environmental poisoning by Kingman Coke’s petrochemical factory. For decades, Kenny says, Kingman “has been pumping all kinds of toxins into the soil, air, and water” of his in-laws’ Black community, resulting in severe illnesses, many fatal.

Grieving, and “aggrieved,” Kenny is now the proprietor of Black Sublime, a Decatur coffee shop.

Why Black Sublime?

“It’s just coffee, I know,” he explains, “but that sense of duty and fulfillment, to learn black, to love black, to become black, that’s the black sublime.”

Kenny means it, though the shop is in actuality a front for his more deadly pursuit: cooking up an extreme drug known as “hiipower.” It’s an “Adderall hack” with a DNA sequence that includes copperhead venom; his refrigerator is packed with “venoms glowing neon in the shroud of chilled air.”

One hiipower user recounts his experience with the drug: “My ideas [were] so whole and rounded they felt like marbles rolling around my skull … I was a dynamo of purpose.”

Unfortunately, there are few survivors because Kenny’s concoction isn’t created for recreational use, it’s a “poison cocktail” made to advance his intricate revenge scheme against Kingman Coke.

And, like all mad scientists, Kenny becomes “a jet stream of cold conviction,” an ends-justify-the-means figure who first experiments on a series of innocents, which even includes his former wife’s nephew.

Using an advice app that he’s developed called EightBall, Kenny chats his prey toward their dooms. With a bang, the hiipower they ingest turns them into “black goo” accompanied by a blast that, in the instance of one promising student, leaves a quasi-sinkhole on school grounds, alerting the authorities.

Enter Kenny’s excellent nemeses, Ebonee and Retta, forensic epidemiologists with the CDC. The case of the vanishing teens, and the others, falls on their shoulders since the Georgia Department of Public Health “is swamped with that mumps outbreak in Buckhead.” Sizing up the situation, the duo understands that hiipower has become a “weapon.” Then, discovering EightBall, they realize they’re dealing with a “phantom puppeteer.”

Author Stephen Kearse, a former resident of Atlanta, understands the local map quite well, drifting smoothly across lines of race and class, plotting toward Windy Hill Road, his destination for the ghoulish showdown between Kenny and the smug Kingman Coke board.

Clearly, Kearse is provocative, though he’s never dull. A swift glance at his essays in national publications reveals an astute, maverick intelligence, a critic who constructs his arguments carefully, just as his fiction builds upon a fine sense of the ridiculous.

His debut, “In the Heat of the Light” (2019), was a mad teenage romp through Atlanta’s suburban maze, in which graffiti artists hijack a government military satellite and focus its laser beam on Stone Mountain’s Confederate sculpture. (One of the granite horses gets “scorched.”)

But “Liquid Snakes,” his second novel, is a stratospheric bolt shot in the general direction of the James Webb Telescope. As a joker, he’s deadly serious, acquiring more than adequate command over the formulas necessary for his narrative purpose. He often short-circuits chronological time with filmic editing techniques to produce artful disorientation.

On display in “Liquid Snakes” are flashes of hardboiled wit (“A knife lay across the man’s lap like a favored pet”); surreal cartoonish imagery (“Her arms shooting from her torso like party-tongue blowers”); sidewise hip-hop illumination (users experience “a high [that hits] like a possession”).

Finally, Kearse deploys startling observations, like this description of an Atlanta serpentarium: “Reptiles idled … It was as if they were waiting for humanity to die off but too proud to declare outright war.”

With its trail of “liquefied” — that is to say invisible — corpses, “Liquid Snakes” is nothing if not unsettling. To put the book’s message plainly, Kenny Bomar — who designs his own fate just as he designs hiipower — is made to be a serial killer by an industry that is, itself, a serial killer: Thus, we have chemistry versus chemistry, tit-for-tat, fighting to the death.

Will America’s war between “those who accept the primacy of material progress and those who emphasize the less tangible aesthetic, moral and environmental ‘qualities of life,’” cited in Leo Marx’s “The Machine in the Garden” (1964) finally turn apocalyptic?

The paradox of “Liquid Snakes” is that Kearse’s seemingly worst impulses — adolescent wildness and nihilistic “fifth force” energy — are among his best, and they are controlled in such a way as to lend this book’s often-radical bleakness an inexplicably rejuvenating tonic.

His protagonist is repugnant, no matter how justified Kenny’s hatred of Kingman Coke may be, but the author sticks with him to the bitter end and never betrays him to the fake ennobling effects of conventional Hollywood reconciliation.

In the novel’s ultra-mysterious denouement, Kenny’s ex-wife and the new mayor’s daughter pick up his mantle of terror, and, if we can’t understand why, well, this is what the New Shock scene looks like: a question mark, engraved, that becomes a pillar of fire.


“Liquid Snakes”

by Stephen Kearse

Soft Skull Press

320 pages, $27

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