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Blackwood

Review

Blackwood

Once you begin BLACKWOOD, it will be difficult to stop. The book will haunt, echo, whisper and scream in the corners of your mind and memory for days after you have finished it --- so much so that it will drown out almost everything else.

The novels of Michael Farris Smith are like that. Smith burst onto the literary scene with THE HANDS OF STRANGERS and has continuously enlarged the boundaries of his talent since then. BLACKWOOD is his most fully realized work to date --- a dark, grim and very real tale set in a crossroads Mississippi municipality that is a push away from extinction. This is the story of that push come to town.

"For all of its woebegone passages and subtle plot misdirection, Smith writes with a dark and frightening beauty that is so addictive once beheld that nothing less will do."

The town in question is Red Bluff, Mississippi, where the vacant storefronts outnumber those that are occupied and the town tavern is arguably the most successful business. In order to fill in the gaps created by its failures, Red Bluff offers the storefronts to all different kinds of artists in a sort of sweat equity deal. The only taker is an enigmatic stranger named Colburn, a junkyard sculptor who combs the local businesses and streets looking to repurpose castoff springs, bars and the like to his own vision.

However, Colburn is no stranger to Red Bluff. His family experienced a personal tragedy when he was a child, an event in which he had a critical hand, unbeknownst to all but himself. The degree and extent of the damage that has been inflicted on him, and that he is capable of inflicting on others, is revealed only gradually after he makes the acquaintance and gains the attraction of Celia, the local bar owner.

While Colburn’s inner workings are being fleshed out, a nomadic family arrives in Red Bluff, their appearance heralded by the breakdown of their automobile in the parking lot of the town’s post office. The group consists of a beaten-down woman, a man with monstrous proclivities, and a boy of indeterminate age who is but a half step or so away from being feral.

Both Colburn and the family gain the attention of Myer, the town’s police officer, at various times and for different reasons. Myer is a good and decent man whose restraint and hesitancy to engage in charitable and hostile acts at the right place and time have profound and fatal consequences as events and circumstances in Red Bluff spiral out of his (and everyone else’s) control, resulting in a stunning conclusion that seems preordained and is terrifyingly real.

You will not just want to read BLACKWOOD. You will want to keep it and hold it close, to revisit it again and again. For all of its woebegone passages and subtle plot misdirection, Smith writes with a dark and frightening beauty that is so addictive once beheld that nothing less will do. Read this book, then carve out some time to become familiar with his backlist. A master is in our midst.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on March 20, 2020

Blackwood
by Michael Farris Smith

  • Publication Date: March 3, 2020
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
  • ISBN-10: 0316529818
  • ISBN-13: 9780316529815