Murder Ink: Southern culture on the skids
'Desperation Road' a riveting look at the seedy and sometimes redeeming side of Southern life

Murder Ink: Southern culture on the skids
Jeffrey Mannix - 04/07/2017

by Jeffrey Mannix

 

The past few months of "Murder Ink” has been like winning at roulette every time the little ball goes bouncing on a mission to take your money. Crime fiction has, in my opinion, eclipsed general fiction over the past decade, and the good books are exceptional literary creations.

“Murder Ink” has always featured the very best crime fiction, and recently we’ve had a string of the best of the very best. One would think that it just couldn’t keep coming on like this, but Desperation Road by Michael Farris Smith is yet another heart-stopper, clothbound book worth the price of lunch at the Palace. At my gym, Fitness Solutions, there is a big sign that says “Being fit feels better than anything tastes.” There’s some kind of extrapolation to be made here with how soon you’ll forget how lunch tasted, or even what you had for lunch, but you’ll always remember the pleasure you got from Desperation Road.  

Desperation Road takes place in Mississippi, the land of William Faulkner, Harper Lee, Carson McCullers, Mark Twain and even Cormac McCarthy, all peddlers of Southern disillusionment. Now Michael Farris Smith will be added to that list if he can repeat what he’s done with Desperation Road, sharing space on a shelf and in the dying soul of the dark side of history’s doleful charmers.

Russell Gaines walks out of the Mississippi State Penitentiary 11 years after being convicted of manslaughter for being drunk, driving and causing the death of a young man whose truck stalled on a narrow bridge. Russell worked maintaining and investing in houses for his father, served honest time and walks out of stir prepared to stop by his father’s home before moving on to higher pastures. The kid Russell mowed down on the bridge has brothers who’ve been waiting 11 long years for Russell to get home. Hate for Russell Gaines stinks up the county and is treated masterfully by Smith as a foil to the plot.

On a highway connecting Louisiana to Mississippi, interstate traffic passes by a shoeless woman and ragged child walking north in the barrow pit. The woman is carrying a garbage bag with their belongings. Nobody stops to help them, now their third day on the road, walking in the burning sun, fruitlessly swatting mosquitoes. The two sleep in the brush and truck stop restrooms, wash in streams and gas stations, and eat what they carried, picked or stole. They’re running away from running away, going back to Mississippi. Finally an old man stops and trundles them on to the next truck plaza, where he leaves them with 40 bucks that buys a sit-down meal and the luxury of a battered motel room overlooking dozens of big rigs idling for the night on the asphalt. 

Maben is the woman’s name, you’ll want to remember her. She gazes hopelessly out the dirty motel window watching two young women climbing in one truck for 10 minutes and another and another. Desperate for money and attention, Maben leaves her daughter sleeping to knock on a window or two. She changes her mind and is walking back across the tarmac to the motel when she’s picked up by an officious sheriff’s deputy and taken into nearby woods and raped. She’s been raped before, and while she’s putting herself together and worrying about her little girl waking and finding herself alone, the bubba is calling other deputies to come have some fun. After bubba orders her to take off her clothes and spread-eagle on the hood of the car, Maben takes the deputy’s gun from his belt lying on the front seat and shoots him in the head. She takes the gun and runs through the brambles back to the motel where she collects her daughter, Annalee, and puts distance between them and the highway.

Russell is gleeful just driving his father’s truck around with the wind in his hair and the smell of the land, avoiding another beating like the one he got the first step off the bus from the brothers of the boy he killed. He hears the sirens and curiously follows the patrol cars to a dirt trail in the woods just beyond the truck plaza. He has a shotgun in the truck to ward off the Tisdale brothers. 

You get the picture. Russell is a felon in the vicinity of a murdered deputy sheriff. Maben is scurrying with a child and a gun through the woods. They eventually come together and Russell helps Maben – the desperado leading the desperate on desperation road. Phew!

Don’t pass this book up because it’s a road of desperation with stops at Wretched, Forlorn and Distraught, on the way to charming Southern discontent. It’s a beautiful slice of life filled with honor, loyalty and bravery as exists among life as low as it can only be in Dixie. And Farris shows more than a promising ability to draw in the heartache and hope of sophisticated readers.

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