A Swollen Red Sun by Matthew McBride is a southern noir thriller where dirty cops cross paths with drug dealers in a Missouri town once dubbed the Meth Capital of the World (available June 17, 2014).
Matthew McBride's A Swollen Red Sun is a disturbing and heartfelt piece of country noir, equal parts Donald Ray Pollock and Larry Brown, both a gripping crime tale and a character-driven tale of desperate people who want to do right.
In Gasconade County, Missouri—once called the meth capital of the world—Deputy Sherriff Dale Banks discovers $52,000 hidden in the broken-down trailer that Jerry Dean Skaggs uses for cooking crystal. And he takes it. Banks knows what he did was wrong, but he did it for all the right reasons. At least, he thinks so. But for every wrong, there is a consequence.
And the consequences are dire indeed, when the impulsive bad boy Skaggs is small fry in the game, a pawn working for Reverend Butch Pogue, the high priest of a one-family cult lording from meth mountain. McBride kicks off the story with a glimpse of the bogeyman family that everyone in Gasconade knows of, but few have seen. It sets a tone of dread that underlies the more human story of Deputy Banks and his partner, two good men struggling with the bad hands life has dealt them. Banks has a special needs daughter whom he loves fiercely, and wants to provide for; is the son of a corrupt lawman whose legacy hangs like a shroud over his life.
The sun went down behind the mobile home like a burst of egg yolk that dripped from the sky and consumed the trees. Sycamores on the river cast long shadows in the burnt auburn hue, and golden shafts punched holes through plump clouds that looked ripe to carry wetness for days.
Woodpeckers knocked and pecked as spring water rose and swooshed through gullies and creeks, climbing their walls and swelling the ditches in low-country places, as the limbs grew plump with leaves and branches fought branches when the cool river kicked up wind.
Deputy Sheriff Dale Everett Banks stood beside the mobile home with a shotgun in his hands. He watched the windows for movement and listened for sounds an old trailer makes when someone inside walks in a manner in which not to be detected.
Some of the most touching chapters are of Olen Brandt, a lonely old farmer who tills his fields with dog at his side, and dreams of his wife, who passed a year prior. It’s these scenes that anchor the story and let us feel what it’s like to live in Gasconade County, and why so many choose the quick and easy money offered by the drug trade. It is a hard life with few material rewards, and Owen often thinks of leaving this life. He is a character of great strength and empathy.
It was hell getting old. Things that used to work didn’t. Things that did work barely worked at all. His hands throbbed and took turns falling asleep. Lately, his bladder was failing him. He always had to piss, but when it came time for the pissing, the urge left as quickly as it had come. Sometimes he was too late and wet himself before he got off the tractor. He’d been forced to take precautions.
“Don’t worry, his doctor said. “You’re eighty-one years old. Feel lucky you can still drive a tractor.”
But that was easy for him to say. He was thirty-one. He wasn’t the one in diapers.
The storyline is familiar—found money and bad men who want it back. But McBride has plenty of surprises, not so much twists as turns directed by the hearts of his characters. The violence is sparse, but as brutal and visceral as a workday in the slaughterhouse. Every action has consequences that ring down through generations, and as Dale tries to hide his transgression from his fellow policemen, he sees that even if he does no more wrong, wrong will be done to those he cares about.
Butch Pogue soaked chemicals in coffee filters during the production of crank. When the batch was complete, he immersed the potent filters in fruit punch, then drank the punch over ice in a plastic shaker. He called it Jehovah’s Blood, and it propelled them into the night like rocket fuel—though the conversations it brought forth both mesmerized and terrified Jerry Dean.
The story dives deep into the desperate hollows of the American heartland and introduces us to men and monsters born of that desperation, but never stumbles into squalor porn. It respects the people it represents, even the fallen. And that is what gives A Swollen Red Sun its big, dark heart. It echoes of early Daniel Woodrell with its prose but has its own sensibility, somewhere between tall tale and hardboiled country crime. McBride shows his influences but tells a story all his own, and here’s hoping he writes many more of them.
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Thomas Pluck writes unflinching fiction with heart. He is the author of Blade of Dishonor, an action thriller spanning Shogun-era Japan to WWII, and the editor of Protectors: Stories to Benefit PROTECT, an anthology of crime fiction for charity. You can find him on Twitter as @thomaspluck.