'Desperation Road': An elegantly told tale of misery and fate in Mississippi
April 16, 2017 12:00 AM
Michael Farris Smith.
By Susan Pearlstein
“Desperation Road” opens with a William Faulkner quote: “The past is never dead.” With this simple assertion, Southern novelist Michael Farris Smith’s homage to fellow Mississippian Faulkner establishes the theme of this compelling novel
For Russell, Maben, and every other significant character in this book, their day-to-day existence is shaped by events occurring years prior to their present lives. Personal history is never dead; it is transformed by each day’s new challenges.
By Michael Farris Smith Lee Boudreaux Books / Little, Brown and Company.
The story begins with Maben and her young daughter Annalee trudging down a Mississippi interstate, hauling their belongings in a garbage bag, fleeing poverty and abuse. It continues with Russell, an ex-con just released to his hometown, whose past transgressions rise up and slam themselves into his face before he can leave the bus depot.
Neither Maben nor Russell are evil; they are both doomed and desperate, shaped by their pasts, and seemingly without any ability to control their presents or futures.
Suspense quietly abounds. The author lets you know that bad things will happen to these folks and they are powerless to stop it. Each miserable, desperate choice made leads them further from their vainly sought-after hopes of love, family, companionship, peace and well-being.
If all this sounds melodramatic, don’t worry. Elegant prose and masterful storytelling transform this tale into a work of literary art. Readers will want to protect Maben, the desperate world-weary mother whose barely existent luck has vanished. Russell, too, is sympathetic, as he struggles to define himself as a moral man, albeit one who has spent the past 11 years in jail.
The author’s skills are apparent on every page. The simplicity and clarity of the writing underlie and enhance his uncanny ability to unerringly depict a scene. The Southern, small town locale is so artfully described that when lightning strikes, the reader flinches; when milkshakes are sipped, the reader is refreshed.
Mr. Smith’s ability to compellingly describe a scene in just a few sentences, giving enough detail to create a picture in the reader’s head but not so many as to crowd out the reader’s own imagination, cannot be overstated. Maben “smoked a pack and asked for more … [He] fed them to her like they were french fries.” Sentences like that allow a reader to see, taste, smell, and possibly yearn to light up, even if you don’t smoke.
As good as the story is, there is more to “Desperation Road” than just a page-turner. These are flawed characters. Their mistakes and bad decisions have led them to their doomed present. But choices still have to be made. Maben and Russell struggle to make better ones, and their struggles are ones readers can empathize with.
Book endings can be challenging. Having come so far with the characters, each reader may have his or her own unique expectations about an appropriate resolution, and the author cannot please everyone. “Desperation Road’s” conclusion may raise this issue.
The author begins the tale with Faulkner, but he ends with the Virgin Mary: “He thought she seemed to be leaning their way, her outstretched arms wide enough for them all. As if to say, Come here and let me hold you.” On “Desperation Road,” hope is in scarce supply, but it is not nonexistent.
Susan Pearlstein is a Pittsburgh attorney who volunteers at the Carnegie Free Library of Swissvale.
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