Welcome to Hardscrabble, USA. This used to be a place where men carved a living out of the land; farmed livestock, raised families, rode steers and stayed honest. Now it’s redneck central, rotten trailers rusting on dusty tracks; crank-addicts toking and buying and selling the product brewed by those feared, weird men who never come down from the mountain. Welcome to the world of A Swollen Red Sun.
A compelling contemporary novel if ever there was one, A Swollen Red Sun treads the same tracks as Cormac McCarthy or ‘Rust and Bone’, but tells its own story and in a particularly gripping way. The story is populated with fully-fledged characters, men with aspirations and ambitions, be they the high school football hero turned rodeo-rider turned Sheriff’s deputy; or the family man with a farmstead as well as his deputy’s badge; or the tweaker-dealer who has dreams of escaping his grimy life and being a good man to his dream girl… if only he knew how. Their paths overlap in this ensemble piece, as the corrupting influence of crank seeps ever further into the traditional lives of everyday folk. Its influence; the money, the violence, the lure, touches everyone in this story.
Author Matthew McBride has taken every traditional character you might expect to find in this kind of situation and hurled them into the mix – even down to an insane preacher who brews meth on the mountain, chains girls in the basement and finds Jesus in his hallucinations. We meet all kinds of trailer trash and worse. The most memorable moments in the book come from some of these encounters – including a devastating description of getting high on meth which probably warrants a health warning all on its own.
It’s not just drug culture, either. A Swollen Red Sun examines how the creeping contamination of crystal meth affects whole communities, entire families, even the traditional old farmers who apparently have nothing to do with their white-trash kin. McBride submerges us in the sorrow of unwanted solitude; of old Olen’s stubborn need to keep on farming although his child and wife have died before him. There’s an impossibly poignant moment where Olen almost gets his desire but is dragged away from the reunion he’s been longing for. All that, and an ornery rooster, too.
Some of the characters blur a little – I have to admit that a couple of the tweaker thugs were indistinguishable to me – but the writing in this hard-hitting novel propels you along with the inevitable awfulness as things get rapidly out of hand. On crystal meth, violence saturates the atmosphere and threatens to uncoil at any moment, and that’s exactly what McBride captures here. A chunk of cash gets taken, by a cop. The dealers need it back to pay the next man up the line. There’s a very literal storm coming, and when the flood comes it sweeps all in its path…
It’s a shame that the women characters are little more than ciphers: they are the victims or the goodwives, and feel sketchily drawn. This is man’s country and all the major characters are unreconstructed hormonal males, snarling and snapping at each other’s throats. They may long for an honest woman and a clean family, but wouldn’t know how to provide for one save with the barrel of a shotgun.
Vivid, nasty, violent and thought-provoking, A Swollen Red Sun is 21st century rural America at its worst – and modern American thriller writing heading for its best.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
A Swollen Red Sun by Matthew McBride is available from Amazon