Wednesday, March 30, 2011

"The Bastard Hand" by Heath Lowrance (New Pulp Press, 2011)

If someone asks you where the wildest, craziest stuff is happening these days, point them in the direction of New Pulp Press.

Their latest is Heath Lowrance’s The Bastard Hand, and it blazes a trail of chaos, crack houses, and unbridled craziness through the back alleys of Memphis and the backwoods of North Mississippi.

It all begins in a Memphis laundromat. Charlie Wesley, who recently escaped from the loony bin, meets Reverend Phineas Childe, a preacher just passing through the city on his way to Cuba landing, a small town in North Mississippi. Wesley is broke, beaten-up, and in need of a doctor—as well as a friend. And friendship is just what Phineas Childe is willing to provide. But Phineas is no ordinary preacher—he drinks, swears, frequents brothels, and his sermons border on the insane. As Wesley tries to figure out what Phineas is really up to, Wesley’s own life begins to spiral out of control as he gets involved with a band of crooks with plans to knock over a crack house.

Noir has its distinguished lineage of crazies, presided over by Jim Thompson’s Lou Ford (The Killer Inside Me). To this list we can now add Charlie Wesley, Lowrance’s narrator and the eyes through which we watch Phineas Childe’s master plan unfold. One of the challenges of employing a psychotic narrator is not to make their neuroses too obvious, or too schematic. Lowrance, like Thompson before him, succeeds in not only making his narrator compelling and disturbingly relatable, but also making their vision “normal” for the reader. Sure, we know something’s not right, but the true horror of the situation doesn’t reveal itself until late in the novel, when noir’s diabolical hand of fate is too far along for it to stop now.

Another thing I like about The Bastard Hand is Lowrance’s choice of locations: Memphis and rural North Mississippi. The stereotype of Noir is LA or NY, at night, shot in black and white, the neon glow of a bar sign reflecting off the grimy pool in the gutter. Yes, but there’s a lot more to noir than that, and a lot more to the country. American Crime Fiction has written its own geographical chronicle of the country, just as it has written its own history of the nation and its people. Fredric Brown set The Far Cry in Taos; James Sallis sets his John Turner trilogy in Tennessee; Megan Abbott takes on Phoenix in Bury Me Deep; Daniel Woodrell has the Ozarks; Vicki Hendricks and Day Keene used Florida; and soon Frank Bill will be introducing us to Crimes in Southern Indiana. On the one hand, The Bastard Hand takes us on a wild ride with a couple of psychos; on the other, it takes us on a tour into parts of the country that you might not have visited before. Maybe they’re familiar to you because (like Lowrance) you have lived there. I’ve never even been to Memphis or Mississippi before, but they sure make a great backdrop for a crime novel.

Part of the fun of The Bastard Hand is watching an apocalypse slowly unfurl from quiet, humble roots to a maelstrom that engulfs an entire town. That sort of escalating bedlam makes for an entertaining reader. More compelling than the mayhem, however, are the contrasting ways that Charlie and Phineas deal with it. Lowrance smartly made this duo like yin and yang. Charlie is impulsive—he rushes into crack houses without so much as a weapon, says what is on mind without thinking through what might happen, and generally lives life flying by the seat of his pants. Phineas, on the other hand, is the more calculated type. He’s intelligent, and his mind works with a labyrinthine logic. They’re both as demented as they are normal, just in different ways. There’s a human vulnerability to Charlie and a fiendish genius to Phineas; at the same time, Charlie was the one in a padded room while Phineas was out driving around the country.

Phineas explains to Charlie his philosophy about sanity and insanity:
“You gotta learn to use people’s craziness, son. That’s what it’s all about….Every single person in the world is a little bit off, y’ know, in one way or another. Everyone’s got their own secret little sickness that they nurture and care for. The wise man moves through the world, spotting the craziness and embracing it. It can work for you, if you know how to pull it out.”
Who’s the crazy one? Hell if I know. What I do know is that both these guys were damned fun to read about, and The Bastard Hand is a hell of a good read. The Bastard Hand may have just come out, but I’m already looking forward to seeing what devilish things Lowrance has up his sleeves for us next.

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Check out Heath Lowrance's blog, Psycho Noir.

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