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Thursday, 6 April 2017

‘Desperation Road’ by Michael Farris Smith

Published by No Exit Press,
23 February 2017.
ISBN: 978-1-84344-987-4 (HB).
978-1-84344-986-7 (PB)

Sometimes it's not easy to discern an author's intention when he or she set out to write a particular novel. I wasn't quite sure whether Michael Farris Smith had written a crime novel, or a piece of literary fiction with a nod to crime.

Desperation Road is a crime novel insofar as crimes take place, and have already taken place before it begins. It's also a crime novel in terms of man's inhumanity to man, and perhaps more specifically to woman. But in terms of bad guys committing crimes and good guys ensuring that they get their comeuppance, which is many people's definition of a crime novel, the jury is still well and truly out.

The set-up in brief: Russell Gaines is just out of prison, having served his time for what is slowly revealed as drunk driving which resulted in a death. His victim's brother, a nasty piece of work with a history of domestic abuse and violence, is after vengeance, but Russell just wants to get on with his life. In a second plot strand, Maben and her daughter Annaleee are on the run from someone or something unnamed. Maben is picked up by a corrupt cop who rapes her and calls his friends to come and do the same; she escapes, grabs his gun, shoots him and runs as fast as she can.

So who are the bad guys here? Technically Maben is guilty of murdering a cop, and Russell has killed someone's brother. But it's not that straightforward.

As he brings the two plot strands together and explores the rights and wrongs of both situations, Farris Smith creates a vivid and saddening picture of life at the bottom of the heap. The Mississippi town where Russell lives and Maben ends up is drab and run down; Maben's life has been a catalogue of bad relationships and dead-end jobs, with Annalee its only bright spot. The light at the end of this downbeat tunnel is  Russell's father, content in his retirement beside a fishing lake, willing to provide a lifeline and ray of hope, and by far the most sharply drawn and sympathetic character in the book.

Their story is told with an intensity and attention to detail that brings their world to life; and it's plain were the reader's sympathies are meant to lie. But it has no satisfying conclusion; the reader is left wondering, along with the protagonists, themselves, what will happen to them: a feature, surely, of literary fiction which attempts to portray a form of reality, rather than the triumph of good over evil theme of crime fiction.
Reviewer: Lynne Patrick

Michael Farris Smith is a native Mississippian who has spent time living abroad in France and Switzerland. He is the recipient of the 2014 Mississippi Author Award and has been awarded the Mississippi Arts Commission Literary Arts Fellowship, the Transatlantic Review Award for Fiction, and the Alabama Arts Council Fellowship Award for Literature. His short fiction has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and his essays have appeared in The New York Times, Catfish Alley, Deep South Magazine, and more. He lives in Columbus, Mississippi, with his wife and two daughters.

Lynne Patrick has been a writer ever since she could pick up a pen, and has enjoyed success with short stories, reviews and feature journalism, but never, alas, with a novel. She crossed to the dark side to become a publisher for a few years, and is proud to have launched several careers which are now burgeoning. She lives on the edge of rural Derbyshire in a house groaning with books, about half of them crime fiction.

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