Monday, April 30, 2018

Anotoher Excellent Southern Noir Novel from Michael Farris Smith

At the age of two, Jack Boucher was abandoned at a Salvation Army thrift store like a bag of old clothes that nobody wanted anymore. In the years after, he would be passed from hand to hand, through one foster home after another, until finally, at the age of twelve, he was adopted by a woman named Maryann from Clarksdale, Mississippi, who might have felt even lonlier than he.

As the novel opens, Jack is now about forty-five, going on seventy-five. At eighteen, he decided to leave the home that Maryann had made for him and follow the southern circuit as a cage fighter. Early on, he had some good years, but those are far behind. He's now a crippled wreck of a man, dependent on booze and illegal pain pills just to make it through the day. And if that weren't bad enough, he now owes $12,000 to a gangster named Big Momma Sweet who is the queen of vice in the Mississippi Delta. 

Maryann is now suffering from dementia and dying in a nursing home. Jack has mortgaged the home and the property she entrusted to him in a failed effort to get ahead of the game one last time. He hates himself for letting her down and then, in a miracle stroke of luck, he wins enough money in a casino to pay off Big Momma Sweet. He hopes that this will be a first step toward paying off the mortgage on Maryann's house and bringing her home again so that she can die there in peace. But fate turns against him once again and in a cruel accident, he loses the money on his way to pay the debt.

What follows is a beautifully-written story that is occasionally as heart-breaking to read as are the characters who inhabit it. As evidenced by his previous book, Desperation Road, nobody does down-and-out quite like Michael Farris Smith. Smith's Mississippi is a hard, stark land where nothing comes easily to anyone, certainly not to people like Jack Boucher, his foster mother, and the other memorable characters that Smith has created here. Jack Boucher, in particular, is so vividly written that the reader can practically feel every ache and pain and disappointment that he endures. This is a character and a book that no reader will soon forget.

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