A Swollen Red Sun by Matthew McBride (Open Road/Mysterious Press, June 2014)-What do a good cop in a corrupt rural Missouri county and a bunch of meth dealers have in common? Other than the fact that it’s Deputy Sheriff Dale Banks’s job to bust said meth dealers (and manufacturers), they now have about $52,000 in cold hard cash in common. That’s a lot of money, and to a man like Banks, who has always tried to walk the straight line and do right by his family (including three kids, one of them disabled), it’s a temptation that he can’t refuse when he finds the sack of cash in a squalid trailer. He can help put his kids through college with that money, and ease some of the burden off his wife’s shoulders. But he knows that this won’t be an easy take, and even though he’s stolen from criminals, he still feels guilty about the theft. Jerry Dean, however, is dependent upon that money, for the most part because if he doesn’t’ get it back, the Reverend Butch Pogue will unleash is particularly vile brand of hell on him. Jerry Dean manages to call attention to himself after an attack on an elderly man that Banks happens to be close to, courting Banks’s wrath as a result.
There are a lot of unsavory folks in A Swollen Red Sun, but let’s talk about Pogue for a bit. Jerry Dean is a rascal and a criminal, but comparing him to Pogue is like comparing Nermal the cat (from Garfield) to a Tasmanian devil. Pogue lives on a mountain with his cadre of vicious dogs, his, er, “wife”, and his, um, other “wife”, who is actually chained in the basement (yep-he’s a winner.) You’re probably getting a fairly good picture of Pogue at this point. He’s evil personified, and for him killing is sort of like weeding the garden (ie no big deal), and he’ll most likely recite a sermon while doing it. Trust me, you don’t want his kind of anointing. Now that you know about the foulness that resides on the mountain, you can see the desperation that drives Jerry Dean to get that money back, and in a way, you can understand the lengths he’ll go to in order to do it. But, he’s got a formidable foe in Dale Banks.
A Swollen Red Sun reminded me, in a way, of The Ruins (without the horrid mimicking plant life), in that nearly everything that can possibly go wrong does, and it’s all like one, horrid, inexorable, flaming snowball hurtling toward giant meth-filled, exploding bowling ball pins…with spikes. McBride explores the rough and tumble side of rural America with a keen eye to the realities of few opportunities and even fewer functioning brain cells as a result of pervasive meth use. However, he manages to do this without painting his entire character pool as meth crazed undesirables, and he never dehumanizes his subjects (well, Pogue may be an exception, but…it’s Pogue, and sometimes people are just plain evil and nasty. Really, really nasty.) Jerry Dean, in particular-aside from his many, many flaws- is sympathetic in his fixation on Pogue’s captive girl, as his mind races with fantasies of rescuing her and finally having someone love him, something good and clean in his life.
McBride’s sense of place is fantastic, and you’ll swear that you feel the humidity and the grime that clings to his characters’ skin like a rime of sweat and reeking desperation. These are people driven by hardship and heartbreak, and the author never lets you forget it, even as you wince, and sometimes cringe, at their monumental mistakes. There are some gruesome scenes here, but they’re necessary, but gratuity isn’t McBride’s style. It all serves the bigger picture, and makes for a riveting reading experience for those that love their crime dirty, sweaty, and fast paced.
Matthew McBride got huge buzz for his first book, the awesomely titled Frank Sinatra in a Blender, and he deserves to get lots of attention for this one. He’s a new name on the scene, but I won’t be surprised to soon see him mentioned in the same breath as Frank Bill, Donald Ray Pollack, and Daniel Woodrell (who I consider the trifecta of grit lit.) He’s got his pulse on the American south, and proves that even among the squalor, hope can, and will, shine through. Nicely done.