County of Offense
Nacogdoches, Angelina and Harris Counties
Murder, Attempted Murder, Possession of a Controlled Substance with Intent to Distribute, Identity Theft, False Imprisonment, Drug Trafficking, Criminal Mischief, Assault, Being a Bunch of Big Fucking Liars All the Time
Known Gang Affiliations
Date of Offense
What We Reckon lets you ride shotgun with Jack and Summer as they roll into East Texas from out of state in their beat-up Honda, bringing nothing with them but fake IDs, an unreasonable sense of optimism, a legacy of unhealthy couples enablement and a kilo of Grade A yayo stuffed in a hollowed-out King James Bible. They're after a fresh start that lets them escape from the crap decisions and narrow escapes of their past. And maybe the (stolen) cocaine can help them actually get ahead for once. But, of course, as in every solid noir tale it's an uphill battle; we can change our environment but very few of us actually change ourselves.
Do Jack and Summer manage to change? Well, I'm not in the ruining-the-story-for-others business, but this is noir of the first order so they're in for a fight.
The book is divided into two parts. Part I consists of Jack and Summer getting the fresh start they'd hoped for, sort of, in the Lufkin/Nacogdoches area: growing their business, partying with the locals, engaging in a little professional networking and even making some H-Town connections. Pruitt puts you in the East Texas college party scene with perfect verisimilitude—I've met guys like Crunch and Kevin Dealer. The politics Summer navigates among her customers is spot on. And I swear I've seen Houston mobster Beef Guidry and his beefcake bodyguards at Hugo's during Sunday brunch, where the waiters apparently hate us all.
Part II introduces the strained partnership of Barney Malone and his estranged son, Donnie Williams. Donnie grew up knowing nothing of his wayward father. After learning of him at his Mom's deathbed, he and Barney eventually establish the Miracle Ranch near Rankin. The Ranch, which has an off-the-grid hippie commune feel, is dedicated to getting young women off of drugs and alcohol. The two don't always see eye-to-eye on how to run the organization, and it's put a strain on their finances and relationship. Barney's absentee fatherhood didn't help. You'll have to connect the two parts of the book yourself, but Pruitt brings them together with a critical mass worthy of a Southern tent revival's warning.
I have an affinity for all things East Texas because, though I came of age in West Texas, I grew up stomping around the piney woods. My father's family is from San Augustine; we still have a house up there. My grandfather worked at the old Benedum ranch, which was known as the Fairway Farm Hunt Club. I still have some relatives in Nacogdoches and I'll probably be buried in a little cemetery in San Augustine (though hopefully no time soon). So I really appreciated the East Texan-ness of the first part of the book with its red dirt and bible-thumping landlords and people gettin' up to who-knows-what back behind the pine veil. Still, Pruitt doesn't lean on the setting or a conventional Dealer Downfall trope to tell his story—it's all about the desperate, colorful, broken characters he's created, their relationships between each other and the orbits to which they were fated long ago.
I subscribe to Otto Penzler's definition of a noir story as one composed of losers in a downward spiral, with no heroes or happy endings to be found anywhere. Pruitt does the venerable genre of Southern noir well, and for my money East Texas is a great place to tell such a story. I say Southern noir because in my view Texas on the whole isn't really the cultural South. But East Texas does a pretty damn good impression at times. It's a different environment for a story than say, No Country for Old Men, with its wide open West Texas vistas and big-money narcotraficantes. But that brings me to Pruitt's voice. To my ear, his prose has the sort of proselytizing, foreboding quality of Cormac McCarthy. He says things like "and so it was thus" and "Barney bothered not with the door." A lesser writer couldn't pull this off; it would be distracting. But Pruitt is not a lesser writer, and his style only makes the story seem larger than life.
What We Reckon's wired-up, sleep-deprived, paranoid, bad-decision-making craziness gets into your blood. You ever hang out with someone you realize is crazy? I mean, not like they fling mashed potatoes around the asylum all day because they think they're Dustin the Big Hopper from Starlight Express, but like a normal-seeming functional person who you slowly came to realize is a few bands short of the full armadillo? I have, and what's scary about the experience is that it feels contagious. Like if you hang out with them enough you too will end up down the rabbit hole. This book made me feel like that, which is just what I want from this kind of story. Like if I spent an afternoon with Summer I'd end up pawning my DSLR to buy a Hi-Point for some poorly planned heist that would land me in the Walls Unit.
If for some reason you didn't consider author Eryk Pruitt when contemplating the noir scene before, there's sure as shit no missing him now. This guy is a player, and even better than this book is the thought that he's got a long and fruitful career as a storyteller in front of him. Much like the legendary Joe Lansdale, I can see him busting out cross-genre doing all kinds of cool stuff in the future. He's already an award-winning film maker, radio host and writer of other things as well. So while I can't promise that everything turns out great for all the characters in What We Reckon, I can promise we'll see more hard-hitting stories from this author in the future.
Guilty of Gritty, Bleary-Eyed Southern Noir Awesomeness
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