Book Review: Blacktop Wasteland by S.A. Cosby
By Thomas PluckJuly 9, 2020
S. A. Cosby’s Blacktop Wasteland is a searing, operatic story of a man pushed to his limits by poverty, race, and his own former life of crime.
Heist novels are a staple of the genre but often they are few and far between. Robin Hood thieves have taken hold, and often when I read fictional criminals, they are less like Richard Stark’s Parker and Wallace Stroby’s Crissa Stone and more like a shadowy justice department where the important thing is to steal only from cartoon villains and distribute most of the gains to their victims.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it gets a little tiresome to have a moral scorecard being checked off when writing what is supposed to be crime. So when I opened Blacktop Wasteland by S.A. Cosby, I was pleasantly surprised that it began with an illegal street race out in the empty highways that give the novel its inspired title, where we meet Beauregard “Bug” Montage, a skilled hot rodder both behind the wheel and under the hood, the son of a getaway driver and thief who is neither ashamed nor afraid to indulge in the profession of his birthright.
Or to say it short: Bug Montage is a tough criminal at heart, who wrestles with his daily life as a rural county mechanic and a family man. His wife knows his past, and he went clean after a big job years ago. This is also welcome, Cosby is well aware of the “one last job” trope and doesn’t begin with it, though we know that Bug will be stealing again soon. As he says, once you’re in the Life, you are always in the Life. Cosby is attuned to working-class life in rural Virginia and the struggles of a business in an area where everyone is one paycheck away from an eviction notice or foreclosure, and Bug’s business is in debt, he’s struggling with the competition, he’s got a college-bound daughter from his first wife who won’t ever escape their small town without his help, and a sick, cruel mother in a nursing home will bills coming due. He’s got a loving wife and two sons, but the world conspires to drag him back to his adrenaline-fueled trade of the top wheelman in Red Hill County.
I’ll let Cosby describe the country he knows so well:
The empty buildings stood like forgotten monoliths to a lost civilization. The ice plant, the insulation plant, the flag factory and the elastic plant were hardly discernable anymore. Mother Nature was reclaiming her land with steady, implacable persistence. The pine trees and the dogwoods and the honeysuckle and the kudzu were slowly but surely enveloping the old buildings in an arboreal embrace. Beauregard’s mother had worked at the elastic plant from the time it opened until its untimely demise. Which just happened to be two years before her retirement, but only a week after she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. A month later, he had taken his first job. [Uncle] Boonie had set him up with a crew out of Philly who needed a driver.
Cosby has said the movie Hell or High Water was an inspiration, and it shows. But Red Hill County is more diverse and realistic, as most working-class people in the United States are not white. When things get desperate, Bug teams up with local ne’er-do-well Ronnie Sessions, a white thief with a bad luck streak but who is the only crook with a line on juicy heists. The tension and history of racial violence are as unignorable as the brutal Southern heat and humidity coming off the asphalt, but they work together because they live together, they’re both come up poor and branded by incarceration. Bug Montage is a great character: Parker as a family man, a thief with a strict code that isn’t about morality, but about not getting caught. But Ronnie Sessions is a close second, a luckless loser with just enough charm to keep him alive after a lifetime of screw-ups. Cosby knows his people and I was drawn in deep, distracted from the news of my country in flames and crying for justice by a classic, character-driven heist tale that inhabits that world, but delivers heart-pounding entertainment.
The main heist is a jewelry job that is part Drive and part Dukes of Hazzard with a Dodge that doesn’t sport the Dixie flag. Without spoiling the surprise, it leads to an even more daring heist with higher stakes, that car lovers will relish and those who aren’t fanatics can enjoy just as well. Unlike James Sallis, who left the automotive details hazy like magic in a fantasy novel—which worked for that classic—Cosby knows cars and engines and salts the steak just enough so those of us who love classic American muscle will smile, and those who only know “D” means “go” won’t be bored or confused by esoteric details.
Like his debut novel My Darkest Prayer, this one balances hardboiled and humor perfectly well, with brutal opposition who are just as tough and sharp as his anti-hero, women who are more than décor, and families and friends who are more than hostages. Blacktop Wasteland is an invigorating shot of nitrous oxide to the classic engine of the getaway driver and heist genre, with a skilled, callused hand on the wheel as it smokes the tires and throws the reader into the seat for an emotional thrill ride they won’t soon forget.