Arkansas, the debut novel from John Brandon, first published by McSweeney’s in 2008, is a literate crime novel in which the crimes are rarely of much importance. Too-smart-for-his-own-good Swin Ruiz and sharp-but-restless Kyle Ribb play at life without ever making too much of an effort. They ramble, they wander, and they go with the flow. It’s really just by chance that they find themselves employed in the drug trade as low-level runners whose boss, Frog, is as much an enigma to them as their true purpose in life is. Kyle and Swin find themselves partnered up and relocated to Arkansas, where they are given cover jobs at a state park under the tutelage of Ranger Bright.
This cover job actually seems to give them the structure they need, while their duties as delivery men offers them some sense of danger and rebellion. Without both of these roles to fill, they likely would grow bored and move on like they have so many times before, but living two half-lives appears to have made them whole… or at least more whole than they had ever been before.
But happenstance strikes again, placing their new existence in jeopardy. Rather than deal with it, they merely sweep it under the rug and continue on as if nothing had ever happened. In some cases, inactivity is just as bad as activity, though, and sooner or later, it will catch up to them.
The chapters that deal with Kyle and Swin (and Swin’s girlfriend Johnna) are told in traditional third person, while the chapters that chart Frog’s rise are told in the second—YOU are doing this, YOU are doing that. It’s a rare way of telling a story, and a difficult one to pull off. In these short bursts, it works pretty well, but would likely have grown tiresome at book length. It has the added side-effect of forcing the reader to identify with the character, as you are placed in his shoes. By then placing Swin and Kyle in the third person, you are distanced from them a bit, as if you are Frog watching them from afar. Them never fully becoming three-dimensional characters is no longer an issue, because you’re never fully with them, never truly inside their heads. You’re merely viewing them through Frog’s binoculars.
The writing style is mostly short and terse sentences, which could be seen as an emulation of the hard boiled crime genre’s elder statesmen, such as Dashiell Hammett, but Brandon does not utilize their patois. More likely, this is his literary voice that just so happens to be similar in tone to other young modern novelists, an uncollected group who eschew florid language in exchange for straightforward storytelling. That’s not to say that there isn’t any poetry here, because there is…it’s just pared down to more immediate stanzas.
Some degree of quirk is to be expected in a story of this sort, but on occasion that quirkiness nearly borders on absurdity. Luckily, it never becomes too distracting, as we quickly move onto other things. In fact, the whole story moves along quickly and we’re always moving onto other things. It makes for a quick and ultimately satisfying read, and although it feels as if we’ve just brushed the surface of this unusual little world that the author has created, perhaps that is for the best.
It’s a nice place to visit, but I’m not sure I’d want to live there.