Source: Review copy
Publication: 19th March 2020 from No Exit Press
The town of Red Bluff, Mississippi, has seen better days, though those who’ve held on have little memory of when that was. Myer, the county’s aged, sardonic lawman, still thinks it can prove itself — when confronted by a strange family of drifters, the sheriff believes that the people of Red Bluff can be accepting, rational, even good.
The opposite is true: this is a landscape of fear and ghosts — of regret and violence — transformed by the kudzu vines that have enveloped the hills around it, swallowing homes, cars, rivers, and hiding a terrible secret deeper still.
Colburn, a junkyard sculptor who’s returned to Red Bluff, knows this pain all too well, though he too is willing to hope for more when he meets and falls in love with Celia, the local bar owner. The Deep South gives these noble, broken, and driven folks the gift of human connection while bestowing upon them the crippling weight of generations. With broken histories and vagabond hearts, the townsfolk wrestle with the evil in the woods — and the wickedness that lurks in each and every one of us.
I always look forward to a book from No Exit Press. There’s a reason they are consistently quoted as among the best independent publishers and I am so grateful for the chance to review this book.
L.P.Hartley wrote “The Past is a foreign country; they do things differently there”. Michael Ferris Smith’s Blackwood is predominantly set in Red Bluff, rural Mississippi in the mid 1970’s, but this is a novel driven by its past. A child dies and a man feels responsible. A family’s life is forever blighted. The Blackwood characters are deeply scarred by what has gone before them.
Red Bluff is dying. Its streets are full of empty shops. The kudzu whose vines so vividly decorate the end papers this book are slowly creeping in on the town, subsuming and strangling everything they come into contact with. Fast growing, invasive, it strips the soil of nutrients and smothers everything it comes into contact with.
Colbert will never forget what he saw in the barn of his Red Bluff home 20 years ago. He escaped that place as soon as he could but now he has returned, drawn back but not sure if it’s where he wants to be. He’s a sculptor, specialising in working with reclaimed junk and found objects and the town, desperate to re-invent itself – to inject some life into the streets, is offering storefront shops to artists, rent free in return for looking after the property. Colbert wants to remain anonymous in this small town, but people here have long memories and Colbert’s name is not one they forget in a hurry.
Around the same time an itinerant family of grifters arrive in Red Bluff. Travelling in a Cadillac that’s on its last legs, they used to be a man, woman and two children but just before arriving in the town, the man determined that they had one too many mouths to feed, so now there are just the three of them.
Mother and son trawl the back streets of the town, scavenging food and bottles to return for the few cents on offer, attracting the attention of the town sheriff, a man who has never really had to deal with trouble. Sheriff Myer thinks he can simply move on this family, and is left at a loss when they refuse to go.
Celia owns the only Red Bluff tavern. She knows Colbert’s history and is drawn to him. She also feels sorry for the boy from the grifter family and just as the kudzu vines make their way into everyone’s lives, so the intertwining of Colbert’s life with Celia and this young boy will lead to another kind of devastation.
There’s a strong sense of imminent doom hanging over everyone in Michael Farris’ Smith’s bleak and harsh novel. Full of desperate people living lonely lives, this is a book about in which making a connection is everything, however fleeting.
Michael Farris Smith’s prose is wonderful. Full of gothic menace, dark allusions and the gloom of poverty that is as smothering as the kudzu. The personal connections between characters that he forges are poignant and incredibly meaningful and the deaths, when they come, are somehow inevitable and at the same time indicative of a world that is reaping what it has sown.
Verdict: A stunning sometimes brutal, dark and gothic noir in which a town finds that the repercussions of the past exert a deeply malign influence. This is horror that you can feel; pain that you can touch. Haunting, disturbing, evocative, this is a book that lodges firmly in your mind. The dark and rich timbre of these realistic fractured and disconnected lives contrasts beautifully with the small shards of potentially redemptive light that fleeting connections throw out. I was engrossed. This is an outstanding read.
Michael Farris Smith is the author of The Fighter, Desperation Road, Rivers, and The Hands of Strangers. He has been awarded the Mississippi Author Award for Fiction, Transatlantic Review Award, and Brick Streets Press Story Award. His novels have appeared on Best of the Year lists with Esquire, Southern Living, Book Riot, and numerous others. He has been a finalist for the Southern Book Prize, the Gold Dagger Award in the UK, and the Grand Prix des Lectrices in France, and his essays have appeared with The New York Times, Bitter Southerner, Garden & Gun, and more. He lives with his wife and daughters in Oxford, Mississippi.