ON THE BOOKS: The author really understands Arkansas
Small towns can be desperate places, especially in an age of advanced capitalism, when box stores, franchise restaurants, streaming services, crystal meth and Oxycontin have managed to homogenize everywhere and nowhere. .
When you can stare at a portable screen and see adventures in alternative glamour, it’s hard to take the mundanity of the places and faces at your fingertips. And if you’re a kid – especially a kid who isn’t cut out for the football team or the cheer squad – you might just want to get out there and go, into whatever new horror awaits you, as long as you that it’s urban and promises a connection with members of your own tribe.
Kelly J. Ford, one of those exceptional Arkansans who achieved, in Charles Portis’ memorable phrase, “escape speed,” now lives in Vermont, not far from Boston, with his wife and cat. She is the author of the highly rated 2017 detective story “Cottonmouths,” which I haven’t read, and “Real Bad Things,” which I have.
TOGETHER IN ‘ARKANSAS’
“Real Bad Things” (Thomas & Mercer, $15.95 paperback) which will be officially released Thursday, is set in the fictional river towns of Arkansas, Maud and Maud Bottoms, which I imagine a bit – perhaps only geographically – are analogous to Russellville and Dardanelle.
In Ford’s invented world, Maud – often referred to as “Maud Proper” – is the slightly more toned and respectable town, while Maud Bottoms is the depot across the tracks (across the river, in this case) dreary trailer parks and slides. -convenience store/gas stations. If you’re looking to buy drugs or sex, you cross the river and cruise the Bottoms.
(One would imagine that Maud is not far from Denton, the setting of Eli Cranor’s remarkable thriller “Don’t Know Tough”, published earlier this year. Pointing out that Cranor’s chronicle appears elsewhere in this section may seem like a small town in itself, but I happened to read these novels in a row and enjoyed how they seemed in conversation with each other. Just a thought for the book clubs.)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ford grew up in Fort Smith, an actual place where the fictional “Real Bad Things” characters go when they want to eat at a restaurant surrounded by strangers or catch a movie at a mall movie theater. I don’t know anything about his personal story beyond what you can glean from blurbs, press releases and online interviews, but I can imagine what it must have been like for a gay teenager growing up in the dark, gray Netherlands of America.
Fort Smith isn’t quite a town in its own right, though it does have industrial and immigrant parks and some diversity of mannerisms and opinions. But then, at some point, Ford moved to the countryside, to the woods where churches dominated the isolated lives of their congregants. She didn’t fit in at first, though she says she fondly remembers her high school days. Which is easy to say when you’re one of those who have come out, who have found a way to live the life you always thought you should live.
She comes back about once a year. (Portis’ full quote: “A lot of people leave Arkansas and most of them come back sooner or later. They can’t quite get to escape velocity.”)
Jane Mooney is also out of Maud Bottoms. Before leaving, when she was 17, she confessed to the murder of her stepfather, a small, violent man named Warren. If she hadn’t said anything, most people would have assumed that Warren had simply disappeared, that he had run away from all the responsibilities he had accumulated. Perhaps he had drowned in the river, by accident or shame. Nobody would have cared.
But Jane’s confession was embarrassing. This caused general unrest for a time and deepened the rift between Jane and her mother, Diane. This outraged the town and her high school classmates who saw her as a weird but shy girl. This blew up his small circle of intimates.
And when a half-hearted investigation turned up no bodies or any other evidence, they let her go. She ran in Boston.
Today, 25 years later, a flood lifted a body, likely Warren’s. So Jane returns to Arkansas, only to surrender again and face whatever punishment the state hands out. As sometimes happens with family, she finds herself in her mother’s trailer, asleep on her couch. She tentatively begins to reconnect with old friends, including former girlfriend Georgia Lee, now married with children and a budding (if decidedly) political career.
Predictably, there’s a new young detective in charge of the investigation who isn’t quite willing to accept Jane’s confession at face value. Maybe she’s protecting someone – maybe it’s her younger brother, who grew up to be a mixed martial arts fighter and local celebrity?
The useful plot of the book is the least interesting thing about “Real Bad Things”. Ford is a professional; she understands the expectations of a mystery and the limits to which genre conventions can be subverted without alienating the audience.
But what’s good about the novel is how differentiated and tenderly drawn most of the characters seem. Ford manages to avoid caricature while capturing the cruel psychology of small towns, the petty pride that comes from fame under the Friday night lights, and the intractable sense of inferiority that infects those left behind.
She gets the push-pull dynamics of toxic families, the sparkling misery of Sonic wrappers and polystyrene in a creek bed, and the loneliness of the different as they lie awake in cramped beds, peering through the ceiling of untouchable galaxies. that they will never know.
In a nutshell, she gets Arkansas, and as you might expect in a book of this genre, her description of her home state isn’t entirely what Arkansas Tourism would approve of. But neither is he devoid of sympathy or love.
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