Rusty Barnes’s first novel, Reckoning, is the story of Richard, a fourteen-year-old country boy, who finds a woman naked and left for dead in the woods. Through this woman, Misty, Richard accesses the dark side of the small farming town where he lives. Motivated by teenage curiosity, hormones, and a fragile sense of down-home morality, Richard befriends Misty, and the shadowy newcomers who take her in (Ms. Neary and her daughter Katie).
Richard and Katie begin a will-they/won’t-they adolescent romance while Richard pines for Misty, older and out-of-reach. At home, Richard doesn’t get along with his parents. His father is a hard-working alcoholic, his mother a demure housewife who could have made something of herself, if only … Then there’s Lyle, the villain. Early in the novel, when Richard is a farmhand, Lyle is his boss. Later, Lyle is Mrs. Neary’s asshole boyfriend. Throughout the novel, Richard suspects Lyle of cooking meth and other shady dealings. He is all things country bad. He’s Richard’s nemesis. At one point Lyle breaks Richard’s arm. We follow along as Richard draws connections between these fragments of his life, revealing a stark, but compelling, picture of what it means to be the person he is becoming.
As for the writing, clichés abound. The redneck one-liners are better suited to Larry the Cable Guy than a work of “serious” fiction. Cuss words appear un-ironically in third person narration.
I’ve been taught lines like, “I wouldn’t piss on them if they was on fire,” are superfluous in literary fiction. They speak to the writer’s lack of craft and restraint … Never mind how many people actually talk like that. I’ve taken my workshop pencil to enough Hot Damns and Shoo Wees to know it’s wrong to write this way. Still, as the characters filled out, I began to feel the desperation behind the zingers and onomatopoetic exclamations.
Much of the language here signifies tradition and affirms belonging while refusing to reveal character in the ways we’ve come to expect from Honey Boo Boo and the Blue Collar Comedians. As I continued reading, I caught myself anticipating how Richard or Lyle would react verbally, and their lack of expressive tools came to reveal their limits rather than the quirky backwoods charm beloved by basic cable subscribers. The resulting effect was interaction weighted with uncomfortable silence. This novel is a case study in the verisimilitude of insecurity, and at its most successful moments, achieves true relevance in exploring the story’s big ideas about hope and desperation at the play-by-play level, through dialogue and action.
My apprehension about Barnes’s language, though, didn’t go away. My worry over whether this writing was good or bad nagged at me from beginning to end, speaking—I think—to the weirdness of the reading experience of Southern or rural (or worst of all, “gritty”) literature: Fiction about working people tends to be written for the chimerical middle class audience. The characters in these books would never read books like the ones they appear in—if they read books at all. And that’s okay. This is fiction. This is make-believe.
But what’s implied by the relationship we’re fostering between reader, writer, and subject?
Doesn’t it have to be hierarchical? Isn’t it always going to be an us-and-them thing?
Artsy descriptions bookending a scene containing broken-off participles (huntin’ and fishin’) or grammatically shameful, but colloquially accurate, turns of phrase (We done fixed that already) make me feel uncomfortable. With a few exceptions (Crappalachia, by Scott McClanahan; Bastard Out of Carolina, by Dorothy Allison) literature about rural people leaves me feeling like I’m in school, like I’m studying a textbook with fancy writing. It makes me feel like I’m reading ethnography.
Not that this sort of writing can’t be its own art (Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, by James Agee) but Rusty Barnes is no tourist.
The masterful illusion of Reckoning is its pervasive sense of possibility in the face of bleak circumstances, a dynamic, Anne-Frank-like tension that is usually forfeited by the too-cool lyricism or self-congratulatory nuance of other (award-winning) books about the working poor. The artifice of fancy writing or elaborate structuring implies that some gadgetry is necessary for understanding these characters and their story. They need legitimizing. It is the quintessentially American reaction to poverty: Let’s grow beards like the duck guys. Let’s do twerking for good cardio. We fetishize the difference.
Reckoning functions in the opposite way. It is an unapologetic installment of the coming-of-age genre, and as every coming-of-ager must be, Reckoning is about choice and identity—Richard can go anywhere and be anything. His whole life is ahead of him. Though we think we know what’s going to happen to a guy like this, Barnes’s storytelling wraps us in the choices of Richard’s daily survival while the larger trajectory of his life as a poor kid in a poor rural town remains unchanged. The optimism and possibility of youth, which are deeply felt reading this book, fail to sync with our intellectual understanding of how Richard’s life will unfold. The middle class sympathy and dread that are foundational emotions of other books about the rural underclass are here lumps under a blanket, and the anxiety they render, is not aesthetic, not romantic. It’s fuckin real.
Richard feels he is making progress, but we see him falling deeper into the usual socio-economic pits: drugs, dead-end jobs, misogyny, and violence. Guns are everywhere, and people get shot. Plenty of writers take on these topics each year, and sometimes on a Sunday afternoon, I admit I would prefer to sit down in a big chair to read Jesmyn Ward’s sports car prose. But if it weren’t Sunday afternoon and I was looking for a book to do something to me during the twenty minutes I spend on break eating lunch in my car, I would take Reckoning. I would take Rusty Barnes’s book for the way it casts my privilege as a character and not some cloudy assumption.
The fact is, in 2014, reading-by-adults-for-fun-and-enrichment is a necessary part of what makes middle class identity a real thing and not just an idea from college. In books then, Barnes suggests there is opportunity for connection. If the experience of American poverty, is the illusion of choice set against the condition of paralysis, then to enter Richard’s story is to confront that frustration page by page. Whether the payoff justifies the trouble is a matter of personal preference, but with Reckoning we are at least respected enough to make that decision for ourselves.
Reckoning, by Rusty Barnes. Buffalo, New York: sunnyoutside, forthcoming.
Dan Townsend lives in Birmingham, Alabama. His fiction appears in Barrelhouse, NANO Fiction, and Drunken Boat, among others.