By S. A. Cosby
Thumb through the crime fiction canon, round up all the private detectives who have prowled the streets of Los Angeles — you could field a football squad. Philip Marlowe at quarterback, Easy Rawlins at strong safety, and a fierce defensive line of framed shamuses. The other teams in the league? Perhaps the Miami D.E.A. Agents, the New York City Investigative Journalists, the Detroit Coroners. The world of noir is well mapped, and we return to its tropes for the comforting knowledge that the little guy will somehow use his wits to beat the long odds against the Man. But though he (and it usually still is a “he”) will win the battle, the world will remain a smoky, sinister and unfair war. “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” You know how these things go.
To freshen up the vibe, some inventive authors have switched the gender of our brooding dicks, troubled them with Tourette’s, launched them out to space. What about a Black mechanic from the sticks, haunted by the ghost of his missing father? Enter Beauregard “Bug” Montage, the protagonist of S. A. Cosby’s “Blacktop Wasteland,” a gritty, thrilling reminder that small-town America has an underbelly, too.
[ This book was one of our most anticipated titles of July. See the full list. ]
Beauregard’s story begins with a high-stakes road race, on a potholed byway, accompanied by a chorus of crickets and whippoorwills. Cosby immediately displays a talent for well-tuned action, raising our heart rates and filling our nostrils with odors of gun smoke and burned rubber. But the real draw here is his evocative depiction of rural Virginia and its denizens. Cosby’s voice is distinctive, and he plays a sharp-tongued Virgil as we descend into the Hades of bucolic poverty. A tacky chair in a trailer park looks “like a clown had vomited on it”; a small-time crook is “as slick as two eels in a bucketful of snot.” Gross! Sad! And kind of fun.
The milieu is fresh; the setup, more familiar. At the onset, Beauregard has given up crime, walking the line to support his wife and two sons. But his auto shop is deep in the red, and one son needs braces. The other son needs glasses. His embittered mother faces eviction from the nursing home. It’s time for one last job. The good news (for us, at least) is that Beauregard’s running mate for that job is Ronnie “Rock and Roll” Sessions, the eel-slick schemer, who has a chronological series of Elvis portraits tattooed from shoulder to hand. Beauregard does the heavy lifting, but it’s Ronnie who gets Cosby’s best punch lines.
As Beauregard backslides into Ronnie’s world, he realizes that he feels more at home driving fast and kicking ass than he ever did in the straight life. This is the legacy bequeathed to him by his father, Anthony “Ant” Montage, another ace wheelman who skipped town when Beauregard was 13. “Violence is a Montage family tradition,” he muses. “He would never feel more alive, more present. … There was truth in that idea and sadness too.” Sadness indeed. Because the more Beauregard exercises his brutal skill, the deeper he sinks into the quicksand of his father’s fate.
Cosby delivers heavy doses of imaginative action and highway high jinks in lieu of any real mystery. But this grim tale finds its saving grace in its refusal to worship its hero. “Blacktop Wasteland” is noir, not myth. It’s not “Django Unchained,” and thank God, because who would read that? Beauregard can’t badass his way out of the traps of racism, poverty and absentee parenting. Such an escape would require different skills. It might even require a different America.