Thursday, March 2, 2017

Book Review: "Desperation Road" by Michael Farris Smith

Yes, yes, YES! This book was amazing!!

Does everyone deserve a second chance? Can we ever free ourselves from the yoke of the wrongs we've done, or are we destined to pay for them forever? Is hope something all should feel entitled to, or should we just accept that hope is a luxury not everyone can afford? These are just a few of the questions Michael Farris Smith addresses in his bleak, brilliant new novel, Desperation Road.

Russell Gaines has just gotten out of prison after 11 years. He has spent that time thinking about a lot of things—the mistake he made that landed him in jail, those who will continue to wish him harm even after his release, and the woman he loved, the woman he let go.

"...he was taken away from thoughts of his youth and forced into thoughts of the man he had been when he was taken away. He had told himself he wasn't going to do it. Wasn't going to stare out the window and lament what he had lost, like some hapless guy in some hapless moment but he wasn't able to resist."

He's ready to start his life anew, even if he knows it won't be easy. But it isn't long at all before those seeking revenge are ready to wreak havoc on the rest of his life, even if he's done his time. And Russell must decide how to respond, how far to let them push him before he must push back.

Meanwhile, a young woman named Maben is walking along the side of the highway with her young daughter, carrying all of their possessions in a garbage bag, hoping for a break. The sun is punishing, yet the pair soldiers on, and Maben hopes they can find someplace to wait out the heat, and then perhaps find temporary respite in a shelter until she figures out their next move. All her life, it seems, she has been running away from something, and she doesn't want to subject her daughter to these same mistakes.

"There were times when it was impossible to sleep as all the evil in the world seemed to gather in her thoughts and she couldn't figure out how to keep the child from it and there were other times when all the evil in the world gathered in her thoughts and exhausted her to the point where she couldn't fight it anymore."

That night Maben is forced into a corner the likes of which she doesn't expect and fears she might not escape, so she acts instinctively, which only causes more trouble. She and her daughter must flee, but no matter where they go, no matter how they try to get a foothold, the mistake she made follows her and threatens to swallow them whole.

One day, Russell and Maben cross paths in a moment of desperation. Neither wants anything to do with the other, but Russell feels like it is his responsibility to protect Maben and her daughter, even if he thinks she is hiding something major. When he finds out what she has done, he knows it's already too late to disentangle himself, and he has to decide whether to save himself or accept what will ultimately come his way. At the same time, Maben finds herself unwittingly involved in Russell's problems as well.

This is really a phenomenal book. I'd never read anything Smith had written before, but I was captivated almost instantaneously by his prose, by his characters and the bleak world they lived in. At times I worried the book would become almost too depressing to bear, because I'd imagine Russell and Maben both felt something like this at times throughout the book:
It is a testament to Smith's talent as a writer that you find yourself utterly immersed in this story of two people whom life really is battering about. He really paints a full picture for you—strong characters, evocative setting, tension that ratchets up increasingly as you feel the locomotive of their troubles heading toward them. But I loved every minute of it. I rooted for Russell and Maben and hoped Smith might take their story in a different direction than I thought.

Whenever I see so many people giving a book 5- and 4-star ratings I worry a lot that somehow its appeal might pass me by. Happily, that wasn't the case for me with Desperation Road. This might not be the most cheerful read, but it is truly evidence of an author's virtuoso performance, one which should absolutely be read.

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