Born and raised in Louisiana, Armand teaches at Southeastern Louisiana University. His books take their cue from various images that come to him, sometimes combined with memories of events. In the case of The Gorge, Armand’s incentive was a walk through Fricke’s Cave in Franklinton, Louisiana, and an actual murder that took place there, according to an author interview by Deep South Magazine.
This was my first exposure to Armand’s writing, and since I love mysteries, I was eager to read it based on the synopsis. The story is concerned with the murder of a young woman, Amber Varnado, and the mystery of who did it. We begin with Amber’s boyfriend Tuller in jail, and it’s a good start, because we don’t know if he’s the guilty party or not.
But then, in the following pages I was thrown off by description after description after description of lighting and smoking cigarettes, repeated tosses of beer cans out vehicle windows, and repetitive references to Amber’s long dark hair, her long legs, long fingers, and how beautiful she was. In a book this size, a single mention—maybe two—would be sufficient for most readers to get the point.
Nevertheless, the book reignited my interest when it revealed other suspects in Amber’s murder.
We meet Euwell:
Ever since he was about thirteen years old, Euwell had wanted to hurt someone. It was an almost inexplicable feeling, but one that he could at least attribute to a direct source, a specific memory. Up until this point in his life, however, he had only come close to what he envisioned as a satisfactory experience of hurting someone, making that person pay for the pain that was inflicted on him when he was a boy.Even more intriguing is the woman-hating pervert Grady, who:
had the face of a man. [ . . . ] The face appeared grizzled and wiry and worn. But the body and the limbs and hands were those of a small boy. It looked barely four feet tall.Grady also has valid mother problems.
Among other characters who complete the cast are Tuller’s former schoolmate Billy, Billy’s girlfriend River, and Billy’s brother Darryl, all who tangle with bad situations and accelerate the suspense. Another person who’s worth keeping an eye on is Amber’s unstable father.
The story is fleshed out with asides, such as this one:
The house from which they stole most of the scrap had looked vacant for a good enough while. Billy, River, and Darryl [ . . . ] had been casing it for several days and they hadn’t seen any lights on inside. There were no people going in or coming out, no sounds.Armand doesn’t shy away from graphic descriptions, as in this passage about Euwell’s encounter with a stranger in a parking lot:
In the scant light, Euwell could see that this man’s nose was half-eaten off. It looked as though someone had taken an electric sander to his face. The flesh around his nostrils was raw and scabbed. There were two drooping holes there where oxygen hissed in and out as the man lit the cigarette and then expelled gray smoke.The result is a raw and chilling read.
Though I found the writing in The Gorge occasionally uneven, Armand’s closing chapters are excellent. I wasn’t disappointed. Readers wanting more of his writing should look for three other works of his that are recently released or in progress: a chapbook titled The Deep Woods; his memoir, My Mother’s House, due out early this year; and The Lord’s Acre, a fourth novel, not yet completed.