Desperation Road by Michael Farris Smith
Maben and her daughter Annalee walk along a lonely highway, a black garbage bag of clothes their only possession. Three days of “walking to nowhere with nothing” have rendered them dead tired, nearly out of money, and desperate to get to a place of safety. When they arrive at an unwelcoming truck stop and get a room, Maben makes what is clearly a last-ditch attempt to get money. This leads to an encounter with a corrupt deputy sheriff and eventually connects the women to Russell Gaines, who has just been released from Parchman penitentiary after eleven years for a drunken automobile death.
Set in the Mississippi Delta, Michael Farris Smith’s Desperation Road plays out in backwoods swamp and farmland as desolate and unpromising as the lives of its protagonists. Ramshackle homes, battered pickup trucks, and long-standing grievances contribute to a deepening sense of isolation. Smith paints an indelible picture of people caught in a vortex of events that have spun out of control.
Smith creates a compelling world in which it seems that all occasions inform against his characters’ finely-drawn rough edges. These are imperfect characters in a world where the bad guys live lives of noisy desperation, blaming external factors on their situation and unable to come to terms with who they are. Each step Maben and Russell take seems to lead them further down the road to inevitable tragedy until, as we expect, their lives intersect with explosive consequences. Russell must decide whether to help or not, and the consequences of that decision unite the novel’s principal characters in a resonant ending.
Russell’s drunken crash eleven years ago drives the action of this beautifully constructed novel, which is elegantly centered on William Faulkner’s admonition that the past is never dead. Smith’s grasp of place and people reveal him to be a master of rounded, fully realized characters in this fine Southern gothic novel.
Desperation Road is Smith’s third novel with a fourth set for release in 2018. A native of Mississippi he still lives there with his family after stops in France and Switzerland. His essays have appeared in the New York Times and his short fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.