Thomas Cobb’s latest novel, due in September from HarperCollins, is a gritty look into a fading small town. Crime and social realism go hand in hand with political writing, and this book wears the weight of current political culture like the snowpack that smothers everything, and causes constant slipping and falling. In fact, the initial tragedy is all about the black ice. The young officer, Ronny Forbert, is knocked over in the black ice. The childhood friend that he is attempting to place under arrest also slips on the same ice and falls into the street. The speeding sedan that smashes into the scene, again, spins and whirls and loses control because of the black ice, and possibly even flies away into the snowy gloom because the ice propels him far enough away that the driver thinks he can escape from justice and just keeps on rolling away from the scene of the accident. This is the slippery business of accidents and unintentional consequences that undergirds all society – the wheel of fortune running under our feet looking for ways people slip up. When Matt Laferiere smashes into the car he was driving, propelled by the runaway white sedan of death, his head is crushed and splattered, and he is completely and instantly dead. The three witnesses to the accident don’t have a good view of events, and the hero of the novel, if there is a hero, is the police chief of this little town in the cold, dark north country. He arrives at the aftermath of the scene, witnessing the terrible tragedy of death. He views the evidence at hand, and hears the stories of the witnesses and decides to his best judgment what happened there, and who is to blame: the driver of the white sedan, not the policeman on a difficult drunk driving arrest.
The town splits into factions around the tragedy, naturally, and the enjoyment of the novel hinges on whether the reader believes that Forbert’s descent is plausible, and the town’s descent is plausible. The latter is much easier to manage. If one considers oneself to be critical of FoxNews and the superheated atmosphere of modern journalism and public discourse, along with the blatant idiocy of the Tea Party factions, if one thinks those folks are living in fantasy worlds of hate, than the actions of the town are quite plausible. The corrupt politician dismantling the government over nominally budgetary concerns while it is a rank design upon a criminal enterprise could be named Sam Brownback or Rick Perry. The climax in the town hall meeting can be jarring in its political tone of Tea Partyism that if the reader had not been paying attention it could throw them from the text. This is a book about the ways that our modern atmosphere of politics and corruption and super-heated media create more tragedies than they solve, and those tragedies are human tragedies. The patrolman is the son of an alcoholic, and begins his life on a path of crime, burning down a gazebo. The chief of police who takes the young man under his wing and tries to groom him for something better is an alcoholic, who had never had children with his diabetic wife, now passed. This surrogate father is pre-disposed to believing in his young patrolman, and the cops do always back other cops in this book (and, presumably, in most of the country).
Politically-speaking, perhaps the most interesting quirk of accepting the novel’s premise is the role of the police. Ultimately, Patrolman Forbert does a very bad thing that a good policeman probably wouldn’t do. The novel chooses not to grapple with the nature versus nurture argument, and instead suggests that it is all nurture: The environment of the town is so bad, and the culture at large is so toxic, that once upon this path there is no escape from the darkness of the soul. Appreciating the novel hinges on believing in Forbert’s dramatic and sudden decline. In one week, therabouts, this young man who aspires to be a good policeman and marry a nice girl and make a good, clean life, is pushed over an edge from which there is no recovery in this life or the next.
The danger of writing about politics so directly, in the realist mode of crime fiction, is that much of the novel’s enjoyment will hinge on the political affiliation of the reader, and that people who most need the message of forgiveness and creating opportunity for young people and paying for the government services that are being used and setting aside superheated news talking heads and narratives and all that stuff… Well, if you agree with the premise, you will say, yes, what a great book. If you disagree with any piece of the political premise, the book will feel unrealistic and malformed and lacking. I agreed with most of the political statements, and found myself generally in agreement with the novel’s conclusion, but I did not believe Forbert’s total collapse of the soul. I did not believe that he would not reach out for some chemical or material salve instead of the decision that he made. The ending, for me, was a form of artistic collapse that was broad and too violent.
But, in the wake of the police violence that is dominating news, with shooting after shooting, and excessive force after excessive force, I wonder if I am the one who is too idealistic to appreciate the darkness that is possible even among the best and most-aspirant members of society. In a week, a single accident and a single hiccup on the path to escape can be so devastating that even well-intentioned policemen, well-intentioned anyone, can be driven to an edge. Maybe?
I don’t know. And, I am thinking about it a little bit, even in my disagreement with the politics of the text. I don’t think I will change my mind on this, but I don’t think I would have read as far as I did if I hadn’t agreed with so much of the current politics of collapse eloquently described on the miniature scale of a dying town in the cold, rural north.
<a href=”http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0062391240/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=0062391240&linkCode=as2&tag=httpjmmcdtrip-20&linkId=PAQAQVAUFY4NNY54″><img border=”0″ src=”http://ws-na.amazon-adsystem.com/widgets/q?_encoding=UTF8&ASIN=0062391240&Format=_SL250_&ID=AsinImage&MarketPlace=US&ServiceVersion=20070822&WS=1&tag=httpjmmcdtrip-20″ ></a><img src=”http://ir-na.amazon-adsystem.com/e/ir?t=httpjmmcdtrip-20&l=as2&o=1&a=0062391240″ width=”1″ height=”1″ border=”0″ alt=”” style=”border:none !important; margin:0px !important;” />