Monday, May 7, 2012

The Ranger by Ace Atkins: A review

Ace Atkins (Surely that isn't his real name!) is a writer that I had never heard of until recently when I read about this book in Bookmarks magazine, even though he's been on the scene for several years now, long enough to publish nine books. I was intrigued by the description of the book which described its setting as the "corrupt hill country" of Mississippi. Having grown up in that hill country in the northeastern corner of the state, I knew I had to read that book. Then, on a trip to Murder by the Book, my favorite indie bookstore, last week, I found the book on the table at the entry, so I paid the price and took it home with me. I'm not disappointed that I did.

This book was the beginning of a new series by Atkins featuring an Army Ranger named Quinn Colson. We meet Colson as he's on his way to his home county of Tibbehah, a fictional county not unlike Yoknapatawpha, from Fort Benning, Georgia. He's headed back for the funeral of his uncle. He's been a Ranger, the only thing he ever wanted to do with his life, for ten years, spending time in Iraq and Afghanistan, and very little time in Mississippi. His family is broken. His father left when he was a child. His sister has disappeared into a drug-addled world as a lap dancer in Memphis, leaving a toddler son in the care of his grandmother, Quinn's mother.

It's only after Quinn arrives in Tibbehah County that he learns that his uncle, who was the county sheriff,  apparently committed suicide, but a young deputy on his staff doesn't accept that verdict and passes her suspicions on to Quinn, who sets out to learn the truth. But in order to do that, he has to confront various family problems, as well as dealing with a pregnant teenage girl to whom he's given a lift on his drive into town, and finally uncovering an entire snakepit of some of the most ignorant, violent, mean-spirited, and downright deranged characters you would ever want to meet on the pages of a book. You sure wouldn't want to meet them outside the pages of a book.

It turns out that Tibbehah County is the center of a big methamphetamine operation that is being run by an Aryan Brotherhood psychopath named Gowrie and he's surrounded by a whole posse of like-minded individuals. But Gowrie and his gang are merely the bottom-feeders in a food chain that includes corrupt local officials and reaches all the way to the mob in Memphis. Will the Ranger ever be able to sort it all out? Will these bad guys prove tougher than the ones he faced in Iraq and Afghanistan?

This genre, or more correctly subgenre, of Southern literature might be called redneck noir. It is a violent tale of dangerously disturbed individuals, but Atkins has an ear for the language of the place and an eye for customs and mannerisms that make all of this ring true. And he is, after all, following in some pretty big footsteps,  those of writers like William Faulkner, Flannery O'Conner, and even Erskine Caldwell. While the tale is a bloody one, it is also at times laugh-out-loud funny and even at the darkest moments, Atkins has a gift for expressing the absurd.

Atkins is a good writer. I don't know why I had never met him before, but I'm glad I finally did. The next book in his Quinn Colson series will be coming out this month. I expect I'll be picking it up the first chance I get.  

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