Odom Shiloh is not the most successful or ambitious guy. He’s pushing 40, his second marriage is on the rocks, and he works as an Assistant to the Assistant Coach for a miserable high school football team. And life only gets worse when Odom runs over a French bicyclist and, inexplicably, flees the scene of the crime.
So it comes as a “wholesome distraction” for Odom when his suicidal sister Bridget, a.k.a. Birdshit, runs away with her new boyfriend. Determined to find them, Odom hits the road with a private investigator named Blakey Flake, who seems more focused on his next cigarette than on cracking the case. As the duo bumbles through Arkansas, Louisiana and Missouri, their journey becomes an existential quest that forces Odom to confront his past. Ultimately, Drag the Darkness Down deals with how childhood experiences shape our lives, as well as the challenges of making adult choices.
Beyond the zaniness of this road trip meets hard-boiled detective story, Matt Baker’s debut novel is a portrait of a man in pain. Odom is a loner, a misfit in midlife crisis. He wants to save his sister from her demons, but needs to save himself. He narrates with a cool detachment that ignores or downplays the damage in his soul. In a typical moment of reflection, he compares his first and second wives:
I think I really like Brianna because she doesn’t ask too many questions about my daddy or what my family does or why whenever I quit a job I don’t sweat it. Why sometimes I sit on the couch for days on end staring out the window or go a week without uttering a single word. Mona picked up on those things; she knew there was something I wasn’t telling her. I promised to tell her. But I never did.
Similarly, Odom keeps secret the conspiracy theories he inherited from his father, a world of black helicopters, crime syndicates, and disdain for the U.S. government, which he calls “Red, White and Blue, Inc.”
While Odom tamps down his feelings, his sidekick never fails to speak his mind. Blakey cracks jokes, picks fights with cops and preachers, and pontificates on everyone from Spinoza to Oprah Winfrey. Along the way, he takes verbal target practice at such pillars of American culture as television, evangelism and Wal-Mart.
The novel gets a lot of mileage from the conflicts between the two characters and their lifestyles. Odom abstains from cigarettes, booze and sex. Blakey lives for them. Odom wants to plan every aspect of the hunt for his sister. Blakey has more unorthodox methods. Yet despite their differences, the two men are allies. In this way, they seem like updated, middle-aged versions of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, the sensitive wallflower and the charismatic rebel.
Overall, Drag the Darkness Down is a fun ride. Baker succeeds at capturing the energy of the odyssey and builds suspense as the mystery unfolds. Meanwhile, the playfulness of the dialogue, with “engagement rings the size of Blow Pops” and characters as “dumb as a roll of nickels,” balances the seriousness of the storyline.
At times, however, the novel loses steam or slips into heavy-handedness, particularly during the climactic revelation. And given the twists and turns of Odom’s journey, the briskness and conventionality of the resolution may come as a letdown.
Still, there is plenty here to keep the reader engaged. Baker, who was born in Indiana, raised in Kansas and now lives in Arkansas, writes with grace about the charm and the bleakness of Middle America. He has a knack for finding comedy in tragedy and vice versa. Above all, he establishes sympathy for his damaged characters. They may never fully heal, but they endure, and sometimes they even fight back.