Arkansas by John Brandon

Next stop: Arkansas.

Picture some no-name state park outside Little Rock, one dilapidated house on the grounds that used to operate as a woodworking school, smack dab in the middle of nowhere, barely registering the slightest blip of existence on Earth, and then you’ll have the heartland of John Brandon’s existential criminal racket.

Inside this dank house dwells a modern rough-and-tumble man named Bright who, in addition to posing as the ranger in order to secure the park as one of Frog’s many continental drug fronts, has the burnt remains of his first professional casualty stashed in a lamp box marked X-MAS STUFF sitting in the attic. As Bright watches television and cooks a hardy, yet unidentifiable gristle, two new drivers named Swin and Kyle lounge in the shabby trailers out back, awaiting direction.

Will their next stop be Hot Springs, and will they be moving cocaine? Or will it be Louisiana, and will the shipment be heroine this time? But none of that matters to Swin and Kyle. Seems that someone, maybe God they speculate, long ago, in the midst of their childhood perhaps, let the proverbial air out of their tires, and heaven knows how, but they wound up in Arkansas, friends. In Kyle’s own words, “Maybe it was only people who wanted things, who felt guilty about getting things and frustrated about not getting things, who needed a philosophy.”

This is Brandon’s vision. This is Brandon’s Arkansas.

As Arkansas opens, readers are introduced to Swin and Kyle, two seemingly different men who share but one sentiment: the desire for complete freedom with as little responsibility as possible. Swin, a smart-aleck intellectual who fancies himself a modern day Robin Hood, stealing jewelry from the rich and depositing the pawned profits in his poor little bank account, soon drops out of school, abandons his sisters to a mediocre stepfather, and starts “breaking the laws of the land.” Kyle, years after hearing of his mother’s accidental electrocution and watching her, night after night, slowly descend into death, holds a series of odd jobs into his 20s, none of which seem to satisfy him, and he even dates a few bohemians, none of whom he finds remarkable, before he eventually surrenders to his calling, organized crime.

Together, Swin and Kyle forge a friendship that can only be called convenient. Each of them considers their meeting no more profound or meaningful than a puddle left by the rain. Swin’s know-it-all sarcasm rakes Kyle’s nerves, and Kyle’s simple-minded, practical attitude toward the world, never giving “high” concepts more thought than a piss, boils Swin’s blood.

C’est la vie. As far as Swin and Kyle are concerned, both of them are “guilty to have life and not know what to do with it.” All they know for certain is that they’re no better than puppets, and a powerful man named Frog is the one pulling the strings. But who is this Frog guy anyway?

Brandon’s dark sense of humor then takes an even darker twist. Turns out you’re Frog. Sometime in the ’80s, bored, bossless, directionless, you purchase a pawnshop and sell pirated videos out of the back room. Later, you move PCP, you torture, you kill, you adopt a middleman, you mold two farm boys into your street eyes and ears, and, finally, voilá! all your hard work has paid off, you have your own private drug empire, and you consider the farm boys your sons, your family.

But things go awry when Swin and Kyle return after a run to Louisiana only to find Bright and some kid dead in the attic, having killed each other. Inexperienced and disconnected, they decide to keep the 40 large in the laundry room and wait for word. Months pass, and still no sign of Frog. No one will return their cryptic phone calls. Boredom begins to itch away at them, compelling them to purchase another car and even get a hold of a gun.

Despite their boss’s death, they continue the drug runs. Swin knocks up a local nurse named Johnna and begins to dream about his coming son, building a nursery complete with model solar system. But Frog (you) is getting suspicious at this point — these two kids could be your worst enemies — and it’s high time you sent your boys to size things up.

Definitely a noteworthy and exciting first publication, Brandon succeeds in creating a new kind of philosophical dilemma — the modern existential criminal crisis — but for that same reason, readers might be discouraged. Obviously, the existential thriller takes a certain kind of reader, one with patience. His characters don’t necessarily deepen or change, but rather attempt to survive their own meaningless existence. Not a book for the squeamish, nor one for those who read for emotional resolution.

Think Camus’ Meursault meets Tony Soprano.

Brandon’s narrative and voice still manages power. His attention to the human condition and the humanity of lowlifes is moving. Swin dreams of publishing a memoir about his criminal experience that would undoubtedly earn him academic praise, praise he would scorn of course. Alone in the house, Kyle repeatedly recalls his mother with fondness and briefly contemplates life, saying “Like the bums of Little Rock, who had never asked him for change, God knew better than to bother…”

Divided into three sections, the first (Boredom Is Beautiful) of which is mostly the establishing of Frog’s organized crime ring as well as Swin and Kyle’s backstories, Arkansas doesn’t leap into action until the second part (The Bodies). But once moving in full force, readers will undoubtedly empathize with these lost souls, their numb attitude toward the dead and the dying, and the hope that flickers as the promise of a child born among them starts to take shape.

As Swin and Kyle scrounge and fumble through their present situation — a dead boss, two overweight farm boys on their tail, Frog manipulating their every move from the shadows, a football loving nurse with impeccable nails turned sober, expecting — readers will learn the value of giving up and starting over.

Brandon’s premier novel is a must for those who love the criminal and the stern, yet dark optimism of the existential. His vision of Arkansas is unique, his wit is sharp, and the sympathy he has for his characters is genuine. For all the dark alleys Brandon explores, both physically and psychologically, Arkansas’s power rests in its redefining and restructuring of the criminal’s only hope: family.

RATING 7 / 10