The characters in John Brandon’s crime noir novel Arkansas are men who, finding themselves unsuitable for the everyday world of work, leave the straight life behind for more illicit activities. When twenty-something Kyle Ribbis is laid off from his job in a bicycle shop, the narrator explains:
He had attempted working in the straight world and doubted he’d ever attempt it again. He couldn’t believe people crammed their lives into belittling routines just for steady money. What was the big deal about getting money steadily? Was that so enticing, getting a tiny check made tinier by taxes every two weeks for the rest of your life, continually voicing the same stale complaints that working stiffs have been voicing for centuries, that the people in Kyle’s apartment complex voiced each evening? Alarm clocks, layoffs, cigarette breaks, backaches, carpal tunnel syndrome, company parties, and always the steady little checks.
Eventually Kyle finds work as a drug runner, as does his co-protagonist, the college dropout and estranged but dutiful older brother Swin Ruiz. Both men are young and disillusioned, itching with angst at the offerings of a straight life, at the men they could be working for and the women they might be dating. Kyle was orphaned as a teenager by the accidental electrocution of his mother; her death “mere verification…that the world had no intention of offering him a worthwhile life,” while Swin left academia a disillusioned petty criminal, stating that “there was no more rebellion for the thinking man… Rebellion was stored in a distant warehouse under a fake name.” Thrown together on a run, they become marooned as subordinates of Kyle Bright, a minor drug boss posing as a park ranger, whose park becomes the launching pad for the rest of the novel.
Interweaved into Kyle and Swin’s story is the second-person narrative of Ken Hovan, better known as Frog, the drug boss whose organization Kyle and Swin work for. Frog’s story is a classic rise to power, revealing a small-time storeowner who unwittingly becomes a drug lord. His first two employees, the countrified brothers Tim and Thomas, are subjected to an orientation filled with his unique mix of dress codes, job descriptions, and mobster threats:
You are the boss. They may never quit, may never refuse an order. If they ever run off, you will hunt them down and kill them, no matter how much you may have grown to like them. Things may move slowly at times, you say, but they may not complain or second-guess you. You are a killer, they are not. You are smart, a city slicker from South Memphis. They may not tell a soul what they do or who they do it with. They are not allowed to drink or get a side job. They are not allowed to bring girls around. Tim will no longer wear his earring. You will get a condo for the three of them, and in a year or so, if things pan out, you’ll move out and give it to them. In time, they might take over the operation, cutting you in for a percentage.
The book is peppered with this kind of talk, the language of work insinuating itself into the lives of all these men who pretend to disdain it. Kyle and Swin work as state park employees under Bright’s supervision, providing them with both a cover story and daily chores, while at the same time relieving Bright of the day to day business of the park. When Frog begins looking for employees, he notes that his first runners “will drive only until other drivers are added, and then they’ll be management.”In this way, everyone in the organization gets promoted sooner or later.
As the two men find their place in Frog’s empire, they also find their own strength, uncovering hidden stores of resourcefulness and ingenuity inside themselves. If it is not enough to keep them safe forever, it is perhaps through no failing of their own. Over and over, Kyle and Swin remark that they are not made for the world other people live in. This is just as true of the other characters in Arkansas, all of them misfits in one way or another, all of them finding places where they finally fit in only to have these refuges prove temporary at best and dangerously wrong at worst.
With its mash-up of work and drug dealing, Arkansas is as much an exploration of the failure of modern employment to further define our lives as it is a crime noir novel, an arrangement that provides its slower middle portion with enough intellectual momentum to keep it from veering off the tense path the novel has built to that point. By the time the story moves on from the day-to-day life at the park toward its brutal and surprising climax, it has built both an intriguing argument and an emotional connection that makes the ending hit that much harder.
This is a ferocious debut, and with it, John Brandon emerges as a writer that will not go unnoticed. As if we have a choice. Like the drug addicts hidden behind the scenes of Arkansas, reading this book is guaranteed to leave you wanting more, more, more.