Review: Burn What Will Burn by C.B. McKenzie

Burn What Will Burn by C.B. McKenzie is a gritty, gripping mystery and an enthralling character study of its poet-protagonist (Available today!).

Set in rural Arkansas in the mid-eighties, C.B. McKenzie brings us noir in the base, true-to-form sense, with a setting filled with oppressive southern heat that rises from the pages like the sheen off scalding asphalt, leaving letters dripping and bringing sweat to your brow. It has the sharp, cutting edge and the southern drawl of a fly lazily buzzing on the front porch in the hot afternoon sun, slicing through the humid air with the background drone of its wings.

Bob Reynolds is a flawed character, all the way, and seeing through his eyes is like looking through a veil at a kaleidoscopic Polaroid memory. He’s a widow, a poet with a drinking problem, a loner, and, most importantly, an outsider in the small town of Poe County—but there is more just under the surface. His eccentricities stand out to the Locals, who don’t really need a reason to target him other than he’s a stranger. The local postman won’t even deliver mail to his house because he’s not a relative of the family who owned the house before he bought it.

As his favorite bartender explains:

“You just got a habit of crawling under people’s skin. Sometimes you put folks off. You’re not exactly socialized, Buddy. You talk funny and write poems. Regulars here think you’re a half-cocked loose cannon, you want to know.”

He is sustained by a family inheritance, yet he lives very minimally, keeping chickens on the front porch and not possessing a telephone. It’s for the latter that he is forced to set in motion a series of events, when he stumbles upon a dead body during his morning walk. This and the fact that he is obsessed with a townie by the name of Tammy Fay Smith—trouble on two long legs. His family had roots in the area long ago, but as far removed as they are, they don’t count for much to the Locals.

My paternal great-great grandfather, Robert Peter, had been born in a log cabin, in Rushing, in 1865, died in the same cabin twenty-eight years later of a ruptured liver and a gunshot wound in the back. His grandson had wildcatted the southern Arkansas and northeast Texas oil that eventually created the general wealth that left me most of my modest little fortune.

Bob is both complicated and simple. His ability to adapt to each scenario, quick and without much effort on the outside, while he internalizes and analyzes is both his strength and his weakness. As Bob reflects:

A black widow spider had constructed an elaborate web in the mailbox, which was but a metal box with a hinged lid on it, a lid that could be shut tight at any time. Still, she sat centered in her ignorance, waiting, doing her thing. If I closed the lid on the box, the spider would die. But I left the mailbox open because I admire patience and can appreciate making an innocent mistake as much as the next guy. Sometimes we set ourselves down in trouble through no fault of our own and only survive it because a god doesn’t shut down the lid on our little box and cut off our life supplies.

The story pulls you along, much like The Little Piney carries secrets and death through its squalid waters. There are many religious overtones and symbolism in this tale, as is expected in the south.

I come from a small southern town—still live in one that’s only marginally bigger and next door—so I know how real this is. They can be a type of ecosystem, in and of themselves, not giving much allowance for outsiders and trying to convert anything that moves by itself. I am no stranger to fire and brimstone, and the Right Reverend Joe Pickens, Senior at the First Rushing Evangelical True Bible Prophecy Church of the Rising Star in Jesus Christ fills this role with his anger and intolerance.

When Bob gets himself in a sticky situation—one that grows deeper by the moment—he finds himself alone and unsure of what move to make. As it becomes more complicated, it is apparent that he is the scapegoat. A simple man, Bob has many decisions to make, and as he does, he must watch his back. This is a new situation for him, but he has money and lawyers on his side and little else in this world to anchor him.

Apart from my garden and my chickens nothing in the world depended on me in the slightest. Even my money took care of itself, multiplied even as I stood staring down at water that appeared deep and cool but was really not much deeper at its deepest than a tall man standing and was as warm along the edges as blood.

From the church, the crooked sheriff, and the snakes in a pit biding time for their fate of being turned into a wallet to Bob’s redneck neighbors with a hoarding problem and budding psychopathic children, the picture McKenzie paints is one that could potentially be seen in every holler and valley in the south. It is literary noir at its finest, bringing a seemingly unending summer to a close by way of a cleansing fire with a story that flows and characters that come to life.

There’s much symbolism and foreshadowing and pointed moments with a mystery that pleasantly refuses to be resolved until the end. There’s believability in the life of everyday small town that is as twisted and dishonest and crooked as the roads that snake through it.

Read an excerpt of Burn What Will Burn here!

 

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Amber Keller is a writer who delves into dark, speculative fiction, particularly horror and suspense/thrillers. You can find her work on her Amazon Author Page and she also features many short stories on Diary of a Writer. A member of the Horror Writers Association, she contributes to many websites and eMagazines and you can follow her on Twitter @akeller9.

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