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July 2, 2008 | Comments ()


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The Unnatural State

Arkansas by John Brandon / Phillip Stephens

Book Reviews | July 2, 2008 | Comments ()


Whenever Arkansas, this oft neglected and much ridiculed home state of ours, gets any play in the media, it’s easy for me to get excited, particularly when it’s the subject of a book from McSweeney’s, that indie-darling of publishing houses. Picking up the novel Arkansas, a debut from author John Brandon, I steeled myself for a thousand glees of recognition. But Arkansas is not about the state in any literal sense, even as a setting; it’s about a feeling, an exaggerated reality of evocation where, as the author says, “Boredom is beautiful.” It’s about the malaise of the American South, of the impossible heat that makes one lazy, body and soul. Brandon’s Arkansas is a place of lyrical horror, where three men discard the trajectories life has set for them - love, marriage, honest living - by becoming low-level criminals, drug runners and illicit merchants. This is an ironic way of rejecting one’s fate, of course, since it will merely serve to hurry it with bloodshed.

Arkansas is chiefly about two men: Swin Ruiz and Kyle Ribb, who steal and loiter as a passive means of rejecting normalcy. Their ambitions seem no greater than to avoid boredom when they bumble into lives as small-time crooks, running drugs and money for an ersatz mobster named Frog. Frog runs his operation out of Little Rock, sending Kyle and Swin on deliveries among the geographical afterthoughts of the state. Eventually they set up shop in the swamps and foothills of southern Arkansas, living on a neglected state park, a front for Frog’s dealings, run by a man named Bright. The pair eke out a slow, surreal pace among the pine trees and trailers; they pursue women lazily, drink, and murmur about the past. Their otherwise dull lives as criminals are spent waiting and waiting, sometimes for assignments and sometimes for a violence that will serve as an agent of the fate they’ve avoided. That violence arrives in small but grotesque quantities, suffusing their undoubtedly short lives with dread and certainty. The strong irony is that Swin and Kyle have built ramshackle lives of exactly what they were avoiding - they play house in the woods and begin constructing a facsimile of family and selfhood in hollow mockery of their former lives.

Brandon writes in short, stabbing sentences, and never allows the novel’s pace to flag. Every scene is short and episodic, arcing only a few pages before ending in a swift, damning statement:

Kyle smelled the grease and the dust. A clock ticked behind him. … He couldn’t believe people crammed their lives into belittling routines just for steady money. What was the big deal about … getting a tiny check made tinier by taxes every two weeks for the rest of your life, continually voicing the same stale complaints that working stiffs have been voicing for centuries …? Alarm clocks, layoffs, cigarette breaks, backaches, carpal tunnel syndrome, company parties, and always the steady little checks.

Brandon seems to be setting himself among the Southern Gothic tradition - Arkansas is a Flannery O’Connor yarn told by Cormac McCarthy. He writes it well, though his story is often little more than a vehicle for style and cynicism. Still, as a debut, Arkansas is profound and breezy, darkly humorous and disturbing. I’m eager to see where Brandon goes from here.


Phillip Stephens is the lead critic and book editor for Pajiba. He lives in Fayetteville, AR, and wastes his twenties in grad school(s).



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