A catfish farm in crisis, a young woman running an obstacle course of the heart, and two old friends at a Texas prison may sound like the elements of a tear-in-your-beer country song. Don't be fooled, though, for these elements make up three distinctive first novels determined to cure your summertime blues.
The back roads of Mississippi are dotted with catfish farms, manmade lakes stuffed with the bottom feeders most folks enjoy fried. And Steve Yarbrough's The Oxygen Man is one deep-fried novel. Original, bold, eerie, Yarbrough's novel takes readers on a trip through snake-infested environs where racism and violence ride shotgun with poverty. Ned Rose works Mississippi nights checking the oxygen levels on catfish ponds for Mack Bell, an old friend with a short fuse. His sister Daze (Daisy) works Mississippi afternoons at Beer Smith's tavern. The siblings occupy the same ramshackle house their parents left, but they don't talk much, and haven't since a horrifying event that occurred while they were in high school. Mack suspects some of his African-American workers have started sabotaging his ponds and enlists Ned to give them a dose of southern justice. After a lifetime of being pushed around by Mack, Ned has a decision to make. And so does Daze, who, like Ned, walks through life as an apparition. What is so stunning about Yarbrough's debut is its downright rawness. He creates some of the creepiest scenes and characters in memory, such as a dead-on portrayal of a high school football coach at an all-white school, the kidnapping of an Ole Miss co-ed, and a screaming motorboat ride that ends in disaster.
But for all the nervy southern gothic touches and the relentless threat of violence, Yarbrough writes with tremendous heart. The pages pulse with a Faulknerian aura of familial fate and the quiet determination to overcome one's own history.
Melissa Bank's The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing, constructed by chapters that jump in time and place, traces the smart and sassy Jane from summers on the Jersey shore through the rough and tumble world of New York publishing. Bad dates, neurotic bosses, a boyfriend nearly 30 years her senior, and perfectly drawn suburban parents mark Jane's frenetic existence.
Bank's whipsmart bildungsroman leaves readers not only nodding their heads in painful recognition of empty bottles and broken hearts, but also holding their sides with brutally honest laughter. To wit, in one of the novel's best episodes, "The Floating House," the socially naive Jane travels to St. Croix with her boyfriend Jamie to visit his ex-girlfriend and her new husband. Or, in the book's penultimate vignette, Jane, recently single, decides to follow the advice of a book called How to Meet and Marry Mr. Right, a thinly disguised The Rules. But rather than just reading the book, the goofy Jane actually has imagined conversations with the book's uptight authors, Bonnie and Faith. Bank writes of Jane's first date with Robert, whom she meets at a wedding: "I don't know what a Luddite is, but Bonnie won't let me ask." When the check comes, Faith says, "Don't even look at it."
"What are you thinking about?" Robert asks, putting his credit card in the leatherette folder, "$87.50 for your thoughts."
"Be mysterious!" Bonnie says. "Excuse me, I say," and go to the ladies' room.
While Bank captures the vagaries of 90s relationships how often to call, when to stay over, when to move in together, and when to bail with a wry, understated style, she never falls into the first-novel trap of self-indulgence. In fact, Bank provides the kind of balance normally found in seasoned writers. Bank gives her characters the room to move, breathe, and be human. Even when her creations suffer from disappointment, jealousy, anger, and feelings of abandonment, Bank manages to keep everything in perspective. The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing mines the delicate space between humor and heartbreak.
Prison is never fun, but prison in Texas is a whole other dark world, especially at Hope Farm State Penitentiary, the backdrop for Robert Draper's first novel, Hadrian's Walls. Hadrian Coleman and Sonny Hope are childhood buddies who end up linked for life when Hadrian saves Sonny from a perverted judge in a cornfield when they are in high school. But the judicial system in Texas isn't always fair, and Hadrian takes the rap, in turn landing in the roughest prison in the country, a place pock-marked by graft, corruption, and mysterious deaths of prisoners, and a place run by Sonny's father, Thunderball. But now Hadrian, who had a celebrated escape, has gotten a full pardon, thanks to Sonny. The problem is that Sonny wants something in return, something that likely will land Hadrian right back in the slammer. Draper's story scorches through the world of East Texas toughs a melange of prison guards, crooked state legislators, wandering wives, and ex-cons, occupants of a world where justice is in the eye of the beholder and prison construction is booming business. Although the pacing, plot, and prose are all commendable, it's Draper's eye for detail, and his dialogue, which crackles and drawls with mean-spirited slang and home-spun wisdom, that give the novel it's life.
At times Draper swings his symbolic hammer too liberally, especially in the book's title, a courtroom scene late in the book, and Sonny Hope's name. His top-notch crime reporter, Sissy Shipman, exists as one of the novel's only straight shooters. Regardless of these minor flaws, Hadrian's Walls is an excellent book. Draper uses fiction to call attention to an increasingly troublesome social problem the business of incarceration but wisely refrains from turning his book into an ideological jag.
The faint of heart reader may do well to stay away, but if you can handle this tough world, Draper's powerful examination of friendship, obligation, and freedom will not disappoint.
Mark Luce sits on the Board of Directors for the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Lawrence, Kansas.