Robert McCammon is one of the authors I just cannot pass on, I love reading his books.
From Boy’s Life, through The Border, Swan Song, and The Listener, McCammon has become a favourite author of mine, whose ability to create impressive worlds and characters is vivid and unforgettable. Whatever he has written I am interested in reading and know it will be worth my time. Gone South is not your typical crime novel. The characters at first glance seem absurd and impossible in any reality, but this is exactly the magic of McCammon – he writes so skilfully that after only a few pages you believe everything.
Dan Lambert is an ex-military man struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder after the Vietnam War. The veteran is divorced and is far from an example of the best father of the year. The war brought him not only family collapse and nightmares, but also leukaemia from exposure to Agent Orange, a herbicide used by the US military during the Vietnam War, or in other words, acid rain that leads not only to the shedding of leaves from trees to reveal the positions of Vietnamese troops, but also to horrific genetic consequences for people exposed to it.
All this, combined with the lack of work during the economic crisis, leads Lambert to a desperate battle with the manager of the credit department at the bank, who wants to take away his last remaining valuable – Lambert’s pickup truck, in which the veteran drives around, in trying to make money with his carpentry skills.
And here McCammon manages to fool the reader for a moment that he is simply telling a common American story about a man who has hit rock bottom and in a moment of madness he goes South shooting another man. It can happen to anyone, right? Bad luck that leads to a tragic accident. A fight to survive, a fight to keep the last drop of dignity left.
Not only the police are chasing Lambert though, a real bounty hunter too. The circumstances of the murder are twisted (another ironic wink from the author to the American media and the spreading of false stories) and a bounty is placed on Lambert’s head. A ruthless two-headed, three-armed man is determined to capture him at all costs, despite the crazy partner he’s stuck with and seems to only stand in the way – an overweight Elvis Presley impersonator with a small puppy in his arms. Yes, here McCammon turns his dark humour on full blast and turns Gone South into an innovative adventure novel where nothing is quite what it seems.
Lambert’s escape into the Louisiana swamps is full of surprises and twists, the biggest of which is Arden Halliday, a young and beautiful girl whose face is half disfigured by an ugly birthmark. Her escape is in search of the Shining Girl, a legendary spiritual healer who may be able to cure her scar. And that’s how Lambert unwittingly finds himself also “staffed” with someone he doesn’t want to be on his way with but seems to have no choice.
Gone South is not an odyssey for a few strangers, the plot is much deeper. Yes, there’s all the action – thieves, killers, drug pushers, alligators (we’re in the Louisiana swamps, after all), but there’s also that subtle, delicate moment that touches you because “the good goes hand in hand with the bad.” Not everything is just black or white. I couldn’t wait to find out what happened at the end of the book and the ending left me pleasantly surprised and satisfied.
If you’re looking for a novel that will challenge you and push you out of your stereotypes, Gone South will satisfy that hunger for something different. Just trust McCammon and the demons in his head. If a writer can write such a story “in a state of utter despair,” as he says in his foreword to the book, then who are we to judge his work and characters?
We can only enjoy his struggle with the darkness and appreciate his attempt to help us not to be afraid, his desire to give us a little hope, because even in the most difficult moments of mental anguish, when everything seems to be a mess of no return , there’s someone who’s been there before, on the other side, who has laughed with “bloody teeth in the f***ing face of failure.” And he’s back. Or rather, he has moved on. And isn’t that the point of it all?
(c) Milena Tseneva
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