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Fiction  |  Novel
239 pages
5” x 7” perfect-bound trade paperback
ISBN: 978-1-934513-45-3
First Edition
Buffalo, New York
Available HERE
Review by Al Kratz

While I was reading Reckoning, by Rusty Barnes, I had a repetitive thought: There are a lot of really good small press books! This thought wasn’t necessarily a discovery. Since you have come to a small press blog to read a small press book review, it’s likely not shocking to you, either, but I think it bears repeating. There are a lot of really good small press books! Along with this idea, I’m struck by how easy it would be to miss reading a book like Reckoning if I limited my reading selection to Amazon recommendations or to reviews coming out of New York. I reckon this gives the indie reader an additional duty. The indie book thrives on the word of mouth, the Goodreads review, the Twitter mentions—the buzz. It’s a little extra effort, but the reader’s return on investment is a stronger network and a decreased chance that we’ll miss good books.

Reckoning is a good book that I’m glad I didn’t miss. It’s a tense coming-of-age story about a 14-year-old boy named Richard Logan who lives in a small, rural, Appalachian town. It begins with Richard in his typical world: working on a farm bringing in hay, dealing with the expectations of his father, and spending time with friends. His typical world quickly changes when his friends and he find an unconscious woman in the woods. This woman, Misty, turns out to be friends with the mother of Richard’s friend, Katie. The story is about them helping Misty, which leads to them having to deal with the villain, Lyle, the sociopathic son of the farmer who hired Richard.

Barnes delivers the story in a matter-of-fact style that lets the action speak for itself. He builds a world that is harsh and relentless, and the reader is compelled to understand it and to find out what will happen to Richard. The evil in his world is often hinted and out of reach. He could let it go, but he’s drawn to addressing it. He chases it and, most of the time, misses it until it occasionally appears and slaps him around. The writing is reminiscent of Daniel Woodrell classics such as Winter’s Bone or Give Us a Kiss: A Country Noir. They all create rural, criminal worlds that are dangerous to the innocent, just via their proximity. Knowing what the criminals are doing in the shadows is enough to get you in trouble. Reckoning establishes its noir with a little more subtlety than Woodrell’s work. Barnes doesn’t need to label it, or use it for shock value—he lets his world unfold more naturally. It’s not until resolution of the main conflict that the full nature of what’s going on in this world is known. The reader learns along with Richard.

The coming-of-age portion of the story contains the classic issues for a growing boy: sexuality, masculinity, freedom, and morality all challenge the protagonist. Like the classic Bowie song, “Changes,” Richard is quite aware of what he’s going through. When Katie says her ex-boyfriend doesn’t fit in in the town as well as Richard does, he shares his perspective on why:

That’s the way things work. Everyone else tells you your place in the world, and you agree with it or not, and that’s how a life gets built. On what somebody else thinks of you.
(p. 80)

Like most teenagers, he makes mistakes, some of which are cringeworthy. Richard is drawn to the older woman, Misty, and he is confused about his feelings for Katie. He is both attracted to and repelled from her, mostly because he doesn’t understand either feeling. He doesn’t like this position, and he resigns to the fact that the only way to get to understanding is to grow up.

Being immature physically also presents challenges in his interactions with men. He’s in the awkward in-between age, and it limits him from helping his father with certain types of manual labor, and it limits his ability to handle physical confrontations with Lyle. He wants to run away from these challenges; he wants to be free, but his sense of justice draws him to find closure regardless of what it might cost him.

He knew dogs could go bad. Humans could, even more easily, and Richard wondered if he had it in him to go bad. He thought of Lyle’s breath in his face and the ache in his right arm. Misty and Kate and Mrs. Neary flashed into his head, and he thought maybe he could do it. He just needed to figure out how.
(p. 108)

These coming-of-age issues converge as the plot takes the group to a resolution of finding out what Lyle is doing. A now-more-mature 14-year-old is ready to complete his journey.

He was just a kid, but he deserved to have a chance to get back at Lyle, to make it better in his head. It wasn’t revenge. It was doing what needed to be done. It was everything he’d been taught in school and by his father and by all the men in the world who truly cared what kind of person he would become.
(p. 199)

This convergence leads to a reckoning for Lyle and Richard who are each called to account for the impacts of their actions. Richard has to face what he has done during his push to stop Lyle. What it has cost the people around him. This impact on Richard gives the story its strength, takes it beyond noir, and makes it an indie read easy to recommend.

Al Kratz is our Fiction Reviewer for The Volt. He is a writer from Des Moines, Iowa, an Assistant Fiction Editor at Pithead Chapel, and is currently working on a novel and a short story collection. He has had work featured in Red Savina Review, Wyvern Lit, Flash Flood, Daily Palette, Apeiron Review, Ardor Flash Fiction, 1000words, Gravel, Literary Orphans, and elsewhere, and he is the winner of the 2013 British Fantasy Society Flash Fiction Competition.

• This book was purchased by Alternating Current from the author at an AWP event. The reviewer does not know the author and received the book from Alternating Current at random. • Permalink • Tag: The Volt •

1 comment:

Rusty Barnes said...

Thanks for the review. Much appreciated.