Black Gum by J. David Osborne
Published by Broken River Books on March 17, 2015
“Every young man fights the truth that he’s half his father.”
It took J. David Osborne only three days to write this gem. And it took me under two hours to read. It felt a bit like wandering in to an Insane Clown Posse show, taking a hit of something strong, picking a fight with the most intimidating guy in the place, getting knocked out in one punch, waking up in a pool of stale beer after all the juggalos have gone, and limping home thinking, wow, I can’t feel my face and I don’t know why I did that but I vaguely feel like a better person now.
So our narrator has hit a pretty rough patch and he isn’t sure where to go from there. He winds up falling in with some sketchy people, specifically drug dealers, specifically Shane, whose hobbies include body modification and being the kind of guy you really don’t want to pick a fight with at the ICP show mentioned above.
I’m not the first to compare Osborne to Raymond Carver. That’s because, like Carver, he can break you with just a few words. His prose is sparse and concise. No syllable is wasted. There are no frills, just brutal honesty. In my review of Nicole Kornher-Stace’s Desideria, I mentioned my frustration with fiction that over-explains itself. I get snippy with writers who don’t trust us to understand the nuances of their narratives and the depth of their themes and oh-so-clever symbols. That’s why reading Osborne is a relief. He skims through his scenes giving you what you need and nothing more. Setting descriptions are bare bones. Dialogue is piecemeal. Shoegazing at a bare minimum. Simply put, he tells it like it is and trusts you to find the truth in it. And that’s not because he just wants to move the plot along. This isn’t that kind of book. Some of the scenes in here are vignettes that are based in the mundane. But something in the mundanity implicitly says, hey, you recognize this feeling don’t you?
Writerly tactics aside, this is just a good story. In the (always fun) genre of Directionless Protagonist Navigates a Depraved World of Weirdoes, this is top shelf. Shane is a really memorable character and I consistently had no clue what kind of antics he was going to drag our hapless narrator into next. The protagonist at times feels like Kyle MacLachlan in Blue Velvet, just going along for Dennis Hopper’s insane ride.
Black Gum is the kind of book to check out and revisit whenever you’re in a particularly misanthropic mood. Grimy, backwater nihilism that manages to not be so bleak that you won’t want to leave the house after finishing. Because he follows Joss Whedon’s advice and somehow manages some (dry) humor in there.
As Osborne said is partially the mission of his own small press, Broken River Books:
“Instead of trafficking in played-out ‘dark’ stereotypes in order to ultimately validate the human spirit, the human spirit instead coexists WITH the dark, with the nihilism. And that’s accomplished through a fucking sense of humor.”
He may as well be pitching Black Gum here. I’m not sure how he does these things. He’s the kind of writer that makes other writers jealous, a.k.a. the best kind.
If the above breakdown interests you, then check out not only Black Gum but also the rest of the Broken River Books catalogue. They’ve got a lot of stuff with similar sensibilities, specifically books that fall under the weird crime fiction umbrella. Oh, and really, really excellent cover art across the board.
Black Gum is available on Amazon.