Blacktop Wasteland by S. A. Cosby is a gritty, violent, Southern noir mystery novel. It’s set in rural Virginia and North Carolina. The protagonist, Beauregard “Bug” Montage, is an African American man who used to be in the “Life” and is now trying to live a non-criminal life. It’s a fantastic read.
When Beauregard was in the Life he was a wheelman, the guy who drives the getaway car. His reputation is known along the east coast. And — wow — the chase scenes are gripping. I’ve never been excited about reading a chase scene before and don’t particularly care for them in movies, but the initial getaway scene was off the charts exciting. I felt like I was driving along with Beauregard. And there’s this great maneuver that I’m still thinking about weeks after reading the book.
Shepherd’s Corner, VA is a town that was doing well until the recession. The whole county took a hit. Businesses folded and there’s not much economic opportunity. Beauregard is a good mechanic and an honest businessman, but that isn’t enough.
Beauregard now owns his own repair shop and is married to a woman with whom he seems to have a good relationship. They have two young sons. One needs glasses, the other needs braces. Beauregard’s mother is in a nursing home that’s going to kick her out because she owes almost 50K. His daughter from a previous relationship won’t be able to afford college. Another garage opened in town which took some of Beauregard’s business and also won a lucrative county contract both shops were pursuing. Beauregard wants to do the right thing, but he is out of money. Along comes a guy from his past with a job that could set them both up for a long time to come.
The opening scene depicts an evening of illegal drag racing on a deserted road. “In addition to the Chevelle, there was a Maverick, two Impalas, a few Camaros and five or six more examples of the heyday of American muscle.” My heart went pitter patter. My first car was a 1972 Maverick (well, technically it was my Mom’s car but she let me borrow it a lot. It was not modified in any way other than the big rust hole that developed on the passenger floorboard, but I loved that car even when I had to use a pencil to keep the choke open to get it going. But I digress).
Beauregard is there that night trying to make money to pay some bills. He’s driving his beloved Duster, which isn’t much to look at on the outside but is tricked out on the inside. The car action and dialogue between the men is vivid and alive. When the cops show up to break things up, you get a clear picture of the world Beauregard inhabits.
There’s also Beauregard’s family tradition of violence which is something that pulls at him. His internal conflict that’s been shaped by generations of violence and racism has him cornered. At one point he lectures his older son,
“Listen, when you’re a black man in America you live with the weight of people’s low expectations on your back every day. They can crush you right down to the goddamn ground. Think about it like it’s a race. Everybody else has a head start and you dragging those low expectations behind you. Choices give you freedom from those expectations. Allows you to cut ‘em loose. Because that’s what freedom is. Being able to let things go. And nothing is more important than freedom. Nothing. You hear me boy?”
So Beauregard makes a choice. He knows that just about everyone underestimates him and he uses that to his advantage. Still, there’s “no honor among thieves” and no matter how well you plan, there’s always the unexpected. And the Sword of Damocles.
Which gets me to Cosby’s writing. There are other classical illusions and comparisons throughout the novel. One that comes to mind is when Beauregard and his wife, Kia, are dancing: “She was a caramel-dipped Aphrodite to his chocolate-covered Pan.” There’s a sense of honor when the reader is in Beauregard’s head, as if he’s almost a mythological Greek or Roman warrior. It’s not that blatant, but you feel it.
This is in stark contrast to how other characters are portrayed through their word choice and dialogue. One of Beauregard’s associates uses derogatory terms regarding a lesbian character and another makes fat jokes about a different woman. Here’s an example from the opening scene, spoken by a man who is Beauregard’s rival, “Ain’t none of y’all motherfuckers ready for the legendary Olds! Y’all might as well go on back home to your ugly wives and try and get some Tuesday night pussy.”
Overall, the reality of these characters’ lives is depressing. They’re in a world where there aren’t many choices and those that are available ain’t the best. They’re all in survival mode and some aren’t particularly good at thinking through what’s best for their own interests. What kept me turning the pages even in this bleakness is the character of Beauregard and the writing style, which practically crackles with energy.
Some of the lines are real kickers. Here are a few:
- “He likes to play dumb, but he as slick as two eels in a bucketful of snot.”
- “He so crooked they gonna have to screw him into the ground when he dies.”
- “She was wearing a tank top and shorts so tight they would become a thong if she sneezed.”
And my favorite:
“Pockets of rust covered the hood like some oxidizing eczema.”
I’ll never look at an old car in quite the same way.
I’ll also never drive the backroads of Virginia or North Carolina in the same way either.
This is a mystery/thriller in the noir tradition that takes you out of the city and into rural black America, specifically the southeast where blacks and whites might coexist, but slavery and the confederacy still linger. There is some extreme gun violence which I didn’t think was gratuitous. It and the language seemed to fit the time, place, and world that the author created. I highly recommend Blacktop Wasteland and want to read more from Cosby.
I also talked about this novel on Episode 106 of the Book Cougars