Black Gum by J David Osborne (Broken River Books, March 17, 2015) – I’ve always believed that the best novels about those criminals (or folks of looser moral standing) have to focus on empathy. A reader needs to understand those who do wrong and they need to believe that yes, in similar circumstances they would probably make choices that weren’t best. In fact, most of us already make terrible choices in life while we’re at a steady state.
In J. David Osborne’s masterful and minimalist ‘Black Gum’, he crafts deeply flawed characters that are equally repugnant and empathetic; in turn focusing on quiet, sad moments that lead to bad decisions. It’s an interesting approach that makes ‘Black Gum’ required reading for fans of crime novels that want something different and thought-provoking.
‘Black Gum’ follows the journey of a depressed young man as he navigates a world of juggalos, transients, and petty criminals with Shane, an enigmatic small-time drug dealer with a penchant for body modification.
It’s a straight, to the point summary, and Osborne’s writing follows suit. The man exemplifies the concept of word economy and it’s a common refrain to hear ‘not a word is wasted’ in book reviews, but Osborne takes this to another level. What he manages in ‘Black Gum’s’ short word count is rarely matched, evocative of Denis Johnson or Patrick DeWitt. Nothing feels missed as you read through the story. The details only matter when they need to. What matters are the characters, the way they float through their lives—the way there are moments that pass and are forever gone. Osborne presents a world realistic enough to ignore its problems and whatever isn’t worth its characters’ time. That Mustang someone was working on? They finished working on it, who cares anymore? Drug deal gone bad and money owed to heavies? The situation was handled while our lead was gone. Nobody wants to discuss it anymore. I think under anyone else’s pen, it would be easy to critique the lack of detail, but it works to the themes of ‘Black Gum’ that those beats are downplayed. These are people that downplay their lives constantly.
And that leads to more discussion on Osborne’s writing. Simply put: Osborne is one of the best damn writers working today. In his prior novels and ‘Black Gum’, Osborne has a rhythm that is easy to fall into as you read—even during the more metaphysical moments that demand a ranting style. Those moments were a highlight for me, as they were fascinating and dense. Osborne has an eye for the surreal—be it the image of a man with a pirate ship tattooed on his face or the descriptions of hallucinations caused by multiple psychotropic drugs. A favorite moment detailing the way it feels to stand in an inch of beer on a linoleum floor.
I highly recommend J. David Osborne’s ‘Black Gum’. It’s always fun to break away from the normal and see how writers are experimenting with providing new insights into a genre that can easily fall prey to repeated tropes. Looking forward to whatever other insanity Osborne has in store for readers. Trust me, I’m pretty sure he’s got quite a bit coming.