September 17, 2014

Ace aces it - The Ranger hits a sweet spot.

I try to keep a handle on new American writers because I'm always on the lookout for people to learn from.

Ace Atkins surprises me - not because he's good, which he is - but because he's written half a dozen or more books and I hadn't stumbled across him or his work until a few weeks ago.

The Ranger is the first book in the 'Quinn Colson' series. Colson is a Ranger - a high-class Special Forces soldier - who returns at the beginning of the book from seeing action in Afghanistan. You get a sense of the man in the opening paragraph:
Quinn headed home, south on the Mississippi highway, in a truck he’d bought in Phenix City, Alabama, for fifteen hundred, a U.S. Army rucksack beside him stuffed with enough clothes for the week and a sweet Colt .44 Anaconda he’d won in a poker game. He carried good rock ’n’ roll and classic country, and photos from his last deployment in Afghanistan, pics of him with his Ranger platoon, the camp monkey “Streak” on his shoulder, Black Hawks at sundown over the mountains. 

Look at the detail in that - Mississippi highway, second-hand truck, 1500 dollars, US Army rucksack, Colt .44 Anaconda, poker game ... concluding with his last deployment in Afghanistan and the Black Hawks in the background. That opening paragraph does so much work in just three sentences, giving us some backstory, some of his personality and even some of his skills ('his Ranger platoon'). We don't get five paragraphs of detailed explanation of who he is, where he's come from and what he can do. We get three packed sentences.

Throughout the book, Atkins expects us to do the work. He doesn't explain or justify the actions of his characters, he just describes them from within a close third person perspective, moving largely between Colson's consciousness and that of Lena, a pregnant girl he meets on the road and who becomes a lead figure in the sub-plot. The movement between the two consciousnesses is achieved smoothly, and while at first one worries that Lena is simply not going to be interesting enough - pregnant Southern teenage girl, where's the surprise in that? - she becomes a strong and capable character whose actions help determine how the main plot and the sub-plot converge.

This shift between characters' perspectives is aided by Atkins' use of language to define whose consciousness we're in. This is Lena's view of a character who becomes the main villain of the book:
Gowrie was geeked-the-fuck-out. She’d seen plenty of folks with their minds burning on that crank. But Gowrie was wild-eyed overtime. One time he just flat out kicked a boy from a folding chair when he thought the boy’s attention had wandered. It was that kind of speech, Gowrie walking and spilling out all matter of hateful things, wearing a T-shirt reading WHITE PRIDE, WORLDWIDE over a Celtic cross.
The language is not an author's objective description of what she's seeing, but the world filtered through her means of expression: 'geeked-the-fuck-out', 'burning on that crank', 'wild-eyed overtime'. Atkins deposits us in her reality by using the language she would use if she were to describe it to us. Of course as a writer when you're using this close third person perspective, your prose has to some extent to mirror the thought processes of the character, otherwise your 'voice' loses credibility. James Lee Burke comes close to this on occasion, when he has uneducated Louisiana folk 'think' with a formality that is closer to Burke's linguistic competence than theirs. Atkins, on the other hand, throws himself behind his characters' thought processes and disappears, much as Elmore Leonard does. (It's perhaps no accident that Leonard appears as an endorsement on at least one of Atkins' book covers.)

In its tone, coincidentally, the book reminds me of the TV show Justified, which of course is based on Leonard's Raylan Givens character and background. While The Ranger is set in Mississippi, the outsize characters and the fact that most of the people - good guys and bad - know each other from way back, are all reminiscent of Justified's exploration of how character is formed by milieu and opportunity. What's more, as is often the case in that show, the real bad guys are those who seek power of some kind - whether religious, political or economic. The folks at the bottom of the pile are serfs whom the more powerful use for their own ends. And it takes a good man like Quinn Colson to ignore the cant and hypocrisy that surround the Powerful to dig down to the truth. 

If I had a critique of the book it would be that by the end we don't sufficiently understand Gowrie and his motivations. He's presented as a kind of uber-survivalist, anti-authoritarian figure perhaps like David Koresh, with attendant spiritual or quasi-religious justifications; but the reasons for his actions become rather blurred. Having said that, the action of the last couple of chapters is handled briskly and without sensationalism, perhaps borrowing its tone from the fact that Quinn Colson, as a Ranger, has seen so much death in Afghanistan that it isn't out of the ordinary for him. His matter-of-factness about the final shoot-out reflects his own experience.

Atkins has taken on the mantle of writing more of Robert B. Parker's 'Spenser' books, and I now look forward to seeing how he adapts himself to writing in Parker's macho, self-praising style. To my mind, the way in which he handles locale, character and action render him an excellent guide to the low-life hi-jinks that seem to take place in some of these backwoods locations, welcoming him and Colson to the roster populated by Joe R. Lansdale's Hap and Leonard, Burke's Dave Robicheaux, Hiaasen's Skink and James W. Hall's Thorn. And praise doesn't come much higher than that.

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