A butterfly squirms in a web. Even if it escapes, remnants of the entanglement will hang on to cripple all efforts to survive. This early scene in Michael Farris Smith's Desperation Road is mere paragraphs, but Smith never relents in the masterful casting of an unrelenting web over his characters through almost 300 bleak yet dazzling pages of life struggle.
Returning to McComb, Mississippi after 11 years in prison, Russell Gaines is trying to assimilate. Despite the support of his father, the web pulls on him in the guise of his former fianceé and the vengeful family whose lives he changed irrevocably.
Maben is a woman on the run. She seems to have been born in a web, and though she tries desperately to break free and create a life for her young daughter, another clash with violence has had its way with her.
Russell isn't looking for redemption, but as his troubled path intersects Maben's disastrous one, he finds meaning in the idea that "the things he could put his hands on needed someone to put out those hands." But rough lives only get rougher, and the slightest breeze could push them further into disaster.
Smith is incredibly gifted; emotion and poetry soak his straight-forward prose, the ease of the flow masking the precision behind every word. He imbues the everyday slog of difficult lives with reverence and grace, painting the faintest glimmer of hope in opportunities lost and prices paid for flying too close to the web.
STREET SENSE: Rivers was one of my favorite books the year it was published, so it was with excitement and anxiety I awaited Smith's next work. No letdown here, Desperation Road is the same fabulous writing that leads to marking and rereading (and rereading).
A FAVORITE PASSAGE: She had discovered that once things started to go bad they gathered and spread like some wild, poisonous vine, a vine that stretched across the miles and the years from the shadowy faces she had known to the lines she had crossed to the things that had been put inside her by strangers. It spread and stretched until the vine had consumed and covered her, wrapping itself around her ankles and around her thighs and around her chest and around her throat and wrists and sliding between her legs and as she looked down at the girl with her sunburned forehead and her thin arms she realized that the child was her own dirty hand reaching out of the thicket in one last desperate attempt to grab on to something good.
COVER NERD SAYS: Beautiful. Dark and mysterious, with the title font semi-hidden in the trees. Who knows what's behind those lights coming up the other side of the rise?
A version of this review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness and is reprinted here with permission.