A Crime Fiction Novel Like No Other
Book review on Arkansas by John Brandon. Published by McSweeney’s Books.
A beautifully written book with a drawn-out timeline. Although I thoroughly enjoyed the prose itself as well as the structure (incorporating entire chapters into the second person), I felt not enough pressure was placed on the characters. Still, I recommend this book to all, especially Crime Fiction readers. I also recommend John Brandon’s 2nd novel, Citrus County, which received a stunning review from the New York Times Book Review in 2010. See my previous post on the review and John Brandon here!
Arkansas follows the life of two teen boys who pose as junior park rangers while they make illegal drug transactions for a mysterious drug lord named Frog, whom they’ve never met. Although the boys and their backgrounds could not be more different, they end up sharing this part of their life together. They see many illegal transactions, meet many mysterious people and become those mysterious people themselves. Forced to “clean up” the aftermath of a double murder, the boys begin walking a tightrope that becomes more and more shaky as the novel goes on.
Brandon did a great job of separating his two main characters. Swin was intelligent with very large dreams. He was Hispanic, had a loving family that he left and feels as if he can control where his life goes. Kyle, with no family left in the world, is willing to let life push him in whatever direction it chooses and never thinks about his life 10, 20, 40 years from now as we see Swin do often. While Swin would randomly grab a book and start to read, Kyle would drop to the ground and start doing push ups.
The contrast helps keep the characters separate in the readers’ minds. As the two boys, about the same age, are the main characters we are focused on, it’s important to keep them separate. Even their names, one unique with the other quite common, help separate them.
Even though the boys got themselves into very dangerous situations, I never felt urgency for them. The timeline spread out over many months and when the boys did find themselves covering up a murderous scandal, there were no immediate consequences or change in their lifestyle. The cops were not after them, their lame cover-up story seemed to fool everybody and their attitudes hardly changed at all. They seemed to be unaffected emotionally to the events around them.
I believe the lack of investigation after the murder could be reality because they were in such a remote location but it still doesn’t make it an interesting one. I felt some kind of pressure needed to be added here, like another park ranger investigating where the missing man was.
The Stunning Prose
The prose of this novel is excellent and what kept me interested. It flowed seamlessly and had a great balance of action and description. The characters were very well-rounded, the setting was complete and the structure was well thought-out.
2nd Person Structure
Brandon incorporates entire chapters that used the second-person narrative to make the reader feel like a character in the novel. The structure is similar to Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, a second-person novel where the unnamed character is trying to escape the chaos of New York City. In Arkansas, these second-person chapters follow a separate character in a separate timeline. This story slowly builds its way into the present narrative where Swin and Kyle are running the park. Although we are given this person’s name right away, we don’t immediately know who he is. The slow revelation of who he is and where he is in the present time was very intriguing. By far my favorite part of the novel!
3 Stars – Recommendation
The prose and second-person narrative gave this a jump for me and I would recommend it to anyone who doesn’t whole-heartedly stick to romance novels. I especially recommend it to anyone interested in Crime Fiction. I think Crime Fiction readers will thoroughly enjoy the unique timeline of this piece.
How I found this book: John Brandon was my creative writing professor at Hamline University and he gave me the best editing advice. By simply crossing off anything that didn’t improve my work, I learned that prose needs to stay on point and interesting or you will lose the reader, no matter how interesting your plot is.