When Russell Gaines returns home to McComb, Mississippi after an eleven-year stretch in Parchman Penitentiary, he believes that he's paid his debt to society. Unfortunately for Russell, not everyone else agrees, and even before he can step off the bus, he sees two brothers waiting for him. The two attack him viciously before being interrupted by a citizen who threatens to call the police. The brothers leave Russell injured on the ground, promising that this won't be the last he'll see of them.
At virtually the same time, a woman named Maben, who has been used very hard by life, is trudging down the highway toward McComb, encouraging her young daughter to keep up, and struggling to carry the heavy garbage bag that contains all their worldly possessions. At this point, the reader has no idea why Russell was in prison, why the two brothers are so intent on doing him harm, or why Maben and her child are out on the road. But it's clear that they are both damaged souls and that their long-term survival is very much in doubt.
Maben's circumstances are about to get much worse in a very big hurry. She settles her daughter into a shabby truck stop motel and then, down to her last few dollars, she attempts to make a few more by resorting to a practice that many desperate women before her have adopted. The attempt has catastrophic results both for Maben and for her daughter.
Meanwhile, Russell has settled into a small house and reconnected with his father and his father's new female companion. He will attempt to make a living as a handyman, but is constantly looking over his shoulder for the trouble that is never very far behind. Inevitably, of course, his own life will intersect with Maben's and the combined weight of their problems may well sink them both.
This is a beautifully written book that captures the setting and these characters as sharply as a finely honed blade. It's impossible not to sympathize with Russell and with Maben as they struggle to achieve some level of peace at a time when the odds are so heavily stacked against them, and even the minor characters are very vividly drawn. This is not a book that's going to make you smile very often (it is, after all, titled Desperation Road), but these are characters and this is a setting that will remain with the reader for a very long time.