Review: Darkansas by Jarret Middleton

Darkansas by Jarret Middleton is a dark, compelling novel of country noir about a family with a secret past and a curse several generations old.

Rural or country noir can be one of the most heartfelt and entertaining crime subgenres when done by capable authors such as Daniel Woodrell and David Joy. Now, Jarret Middleton’s extraordinary new novel, Darkansas, has placed its author in that distinguished group. Dark, bizarre, and steeped in the culture of the Ozarks, Darkansas is a hybrid narrative that inhabits the interstitial space between crime, horror, literary fiction, and mystery.

Jordan Bayne is an ex-con eking out a life working as a musician and living in a small, filthy room in San Antonio, Texas. He is a haunted man who’s constantly in trouble and always on the run, sometimes from things he can’t put his finger on. He’s also condemned to live in the shadow of his brother, Malcolm, who works in the insurance business and has never been in trouble, and his father, Walker, a man who’s a legend in the music business. When Malcolm comes back home to the Ozarks to get married, the two brothers and their father are thrown into a maelstrom of repressed emotions and dark family history that threatens to not only derail the festivities but also end in death.

On its surface, Darkansas is a narrative about a family with a very dark history who comes together after many years with almost no contact to celebrate a wedding where bad blood erupts. However, right below the surface, this novel offers much, much more.

Middleton has crafted a book that walks a fine line between a family drama, a rural noir packed with violence, and a horror story about secret agendas and seemingly inescapable destinies guarded by shady men who live in the woods and appear to inhabit the world of myth instead of reality. Jordan becomes obsessed with the family’s history, one in which twin brothers like him and Malcolm are too often responsible for the death of their father. But his quest to unearth the past leads him into a surreal, scary truth that he barely understands.

Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of Darkansas is the way it dips in and out of the curse that follows the Baynes. The passages and scenes in between those moments explore violence in the way only crime narratives can, and in the process, they reveal the nature of the brothers both to readers and themselves. A great example takes place during what turns out to be a rather gloomy bachelor party with a sour finale:

His stood from the bed and found a tray strewn with weed and cut up pills on the dresser were Russ’s survival knife sat, unfolded. Malcolm’s eyes went from the knife to Russ, who did the same to him, assessing the danger they posed to each other. Both men lunged forth, but Malcolm got there first. He secured the grooved handle and turned it on Russ, who gripped his wrist with his one good hand before Malcolm slammed him against the wall. Malcolm screwed a fistful of flannel into Russ’s chest, smashed him twice and finally pinned him there with the gruesome blade to his throat.

The second element of this novel that merits attention is the language. Middleton is as comfortable with brutality and sinister, bloody events as he is with poetic languages. The result is writing that manages to shines despite the darkness in which it is steeped. Coming in at just over 200 pages, Darkansas is a relatively short, fast read, but it soon becomes memorable thanks to passages that move away from the mystery, deaths, and anger to focus on minutiae that gives the narrative a strange balance:

She swallowed gulps of air as though she has surfaced from a well and wandered around her house touching surfaces to various parts of her body—couch fabric to her thighs, the plastic television remote to her for head, the hewn curves of Jordan’s fingers on her breasts. Long obstructed passages in her began to break until she exploded. They wrapped in their bodies around each other so tight the air squeezed out of her lungs. A trail of clothes littered the way to her bedroom, where they cried and laughed and pushed into each other, tending to the invisible sites of each other’s wounds.

Darkansas is a myth-infused tale that dances between two atmospheres, one tense and solidly anchored in reality and the other creepy and populated by human monsters that are part of many local legends. Furthermore, there are chapters that break away from the main narrative to travel back in time and show the readers the worst of the family history. In those, the language shines with everything from bloodletting to the feverous religious passion. Ultimately, it all comes together in a novel that shares DNA not only with the best contemporary Southern Gothic and country noir authors but also with literary giants like William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy.