Darkansas by Jarret Middleton, review by Bruce Jacobs
There is plenty of dark in Jarret Middleton's cleverly titled novel Darkansas. Rooting through the Ozark hills and hollers reminiscent of the hillbilly noir of Daniel Woodrell, Middleton kicks up the violent secrets of generations of Baynes and their genetic legacy of twins and patricide. Like Woodrell, Middleton (editor of Pharos Editions and author of the experimental novel An Dantomine Eerly) packs a lot of hamburger in a small bun--200 pages of serious drinking, country lore, a bear attack, guitar picking lessons, an abandoned mine collapse, bootleg logging, both mindless and attentive sex, a motorcycle crash and a vengeful immolation.
At the center of his story are noted bluegrass musician Walker Bayne and his twin sons, Jordan and Malcolm. An accomplished guitarist himself, Jordan bolts from the Ouachitas in rebellion against his father's fame. He plays country honk, drinks shine and whores his way through dive bars like "Bourbon & Boots, one of the most worn out shitholes in all of San Antonio." Malcolm is the solid over-achiever who always caught the most fish, killed the most ducks and picked up the pieces after a Jordan rampage. As Jordan explains to an old girlfriend: "He followed the rules, I broke them. I used my hands, he used his brain. I went through life like a freight train and he slipped by undetected."
In the shadows behind the story of the Bayne family are a pair of strikingly described mountain phantoms stalking Jordan and Malcolm with murderous intent: the seven-foot Andridge Grieves and his partner Obediah Cob, "a fully grown homunculus... a meld of earthen substances. Semen and ewe blood, sunstone, willow sap, sputum, and manure." Without missing a beat, Middleton weaves these supernatural ghost-like characters into the hyper-realism of a story that vividly describes the de-feathering, dressing and roasting of a wild duck, a local chophouse "serving sides of cow larger than blown tires in a setting of catalog décor and fake candlelight." On a crazy night with a hard-drinking girlfriend, Jordan laid "a trail of wreckage from bar to bar that followed the same pattern of beer, whiskey, weed, and pills, landing them in a cheap motel room. Then the real drinking began, the kind functioning human beings don't know exists, solely the trade of the violent, the depressed, and insane."
Old grudges, regrets, jealousy and 150 years of buried secrets blow up any chance of a heartwarming Baynes reunion at Malcolm's wedding. Bleak, perhaps, but Darkansas also shines with a light of empathy for a family with more than its share of bad luck to go along with its bad genes.
Bruce Jacobs's review first appeared in Shelf Awareness.