Rural libertarians

Disorganized crime, rendered elegantly, in Arkansas
By CHRISTOPHER GRAY  |  July 30, 2008
JOHN BRANDON, a master of verbal economy.

ARKANSAS by John Brandon | McSweeney's Books | 230 pp | $22 | Reading at Longfellow Books, One Monument Way, Portland | Thursday, July 31, at 7 pm | Free | 207.772.4045
Swin and Kyle are two low-level drug runners in rural Arkansas with, respectively, little and nothing to live for. Their existential banter reads like something out of a Coen Brothers film. Swin wants to become a college professor and plans to write a memoir called The Mule to Emeritus Diaries. Kyle compulsively listens to Richard Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra, rewinding it every time he's interrupted. The woman who provides Kyle and Swin with information about their next drug run is named Her. Swin's girlfriend, Johnna, is a rabid Razorbacks football fan; she has weekly meetings with their coach "to discuss the game plan." Swin and Kyle's career in the drug trade climaxes with a violent encounter in a rural bathhouse in Bill Clinton's home town.

For something so full of personal quirks and whimsical detail, John Brandon's first novel, Arkansas, is a sober, even dignified, read. Brandon crafts Swin and Kyle as comic and intellectual foils bound by a detachment from the modern world. Both speak of a disdain for "normal people" but are drawn to the drug trade for different reasons. Swin, a fast-talking and charismatic charmer, finds the lifestyle and moral code romantic; Kyle, the prototypical strong, silent type, wants to earn his keep with as little interaction with others as possible.

Working for a boss they've never met (named Frog, the story of his rise to regional-kingpin status is relayed in short interludes throughout the book), the pair are assigned to duty at a state park, teamed with a ranger named Bright who moonlights organizing their drug runs. After one of Kyle and Swin's deliveries goes bad, Bright is murdered, and the two are forced to keep up the park and the drug trade without arousing suspicion about his whereabouts. Ironically, the duo's routine becomes even more mundane and domestic than it already was, even as it demands lying and, occasionally, murder.

Brandon's verbal economy enhances the circumstances. Like his characters, his sentences are terse but full of purpose and evocative detail. He observes action in the simple words his characters would speak in (when Kyle buys a shirt, it's "a green button-down with a pointy collar"; Swin goes shopping for his pregnant girlfriend in a "baby store"). The author does the same depicting the landscape. After a while, the reader gets a vivid picture of the park and the trailer Kyle and Swin live in, but would be hard-pressed to find the descriptive passages that conjure the image.

The same subtlety is evident in the arcs of Kyle and Swin's characters. Initially, Swin seems the annoying, excitable sidekick to Kyle's calm, composed leader. But as Swin's relationship with Johnna causes him to grow up and care for others more, and the responsibilities of their job after Bright's murder weigh on them, the two get along better, while Kyle's iron-fisted grip on his own temperament weakens. The more people he has to answer to, the more dangerous and nihilistic he becomes. Meanwhile, Swin grows more cautious and afraid, because he'll soon have a family to care for. The pair's wandering, philosophical conversations grow more tense and pointed as this divide widens.

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