I began my love affair with Southern fiction, as most of us do, with Faulkner, but I didn’t get serious about studying the genre until I started reading Tom Franklin. His then-distinctive blend of gritty blue-collar stories set in a modern but familiar American South, a style of writing Franklin likes to call “Industrial Gothic,” built on groundwork laid by Barry Hannah and Cormac McCarthy and Raymond Carver, making Southern regionalism seem universal and making the cold mechanical world of a post-agrarian South seem as uniquely Southern as Faulkner’s hot, wild Yoknapatawpha. I loved the work so much I wrote my masters thesis on Franklin.
Christopher Cook is a fan of Franklin, too. It was our mutual admiration of Franklin’s work that wound up bringing Cook and I together on Facebook, where I also learned that Cook is from Port Neches, Texas, a Gulf Coast town in deep southeast Texas where I, too, spent part of my childhood. And discovering a Texas writer with whom I share a regional past and a preference for fiction was quite a thrill for me. So obviously, I just had to read his work.
Robbers is an early novel from Cook, but it’s a delicious one, full of violence and debauchery: convenience store robberies, adultery, wanton murder, black widows, casual rape. But that’s only half the book! The other half — literally, as the chapters swap perspectives back and forth from criminals to lawmen — is an almost old-fashioned police procedural, with a swaggering Texas marshal on the hunt for the marauding bad guys. This novel has all the force of a Quentin Tarantino film wrapped in the casual hipness of an Elmore Leonard novel.
And if that was all this book was, I’d have enjoyed the hell out of it. It’s a wild ride, great for staying up late turning pages by lamplight. But actually, the book is more than that — it’s also damn beautifully written. Even a task as simple as describing common Texas locations, like the city of Austin, takes on an almost mythic language:
They rolled on southward through the commercial verge, crossed the Colorado bridge above a shimmering turquoise river. Upstream high greentreed banks flanking the course and a solitary racing shell sculling the windskipped surface, a waterborn centipede. Downstream, bridges over First Street and Congress and the snaggletoothed profile of the glassy city center.
Also, though the characters start their journey according to type — bad guys kill, rob, and rape; good guys wear badges and white hats and steadfastly hunt the bad guys — within the first few chapters everyone takes on far greater depth than you might expect from this kind of story. The killers expose deeply personal backstories and emotional misgivings about their crimes. (There is a weirdly unnerving scene in which one of the crooks tries to rape a woman but can’t perform, “thinking he couldn’t get a hard-on cause it didn’t feel right. Knowing it wasn’t.” He even apologizes to his victim, who forgives him! We almost want to forgive him too, so tender is the villain.) The black widow who leaves a suave man dead in a hotel room is also a desperate single mother trying to make her way in the world. And the heroic cops are less than heroic, too, pursuing duty but making an awful mess of it as they go.
In all this, the various landscapes of Texas are vivid and compelling, not quite “a character itself” as we so often want to claim of regional fiction, but definitely a sharp presence in the book, an almost spiritual underscore to the whole story, as though the wide expanse of the state (so huge it’s hard to escape) was itself some hot, unforgiving deity overseeing the events but never much bothering to interfere.
Robbers delivers on all levels, really — it’s a rousing cops-and-robbers story, a harrowing tale of murder and mayhem, and a beautifully written work of fiction. And it would be quite at home on the same shelf as Tom Franklin’s Smonk or “Grit,” the opening story of Franklin’s collection Poachers.
I very much look forward to reading more of Cook’s fiction.
For more on what I’m currently reading, check out my Bookshelf.