Blog Tour- Michael Farris Smith- The Fighter

The acres and acres of fertile soil, the two-hundred year old antebellum house, all gone. And so is the woman who gave it to him. The foster mother who saved Jack Boucher from a childhood of abandonment now rests in a hospice. Her mind eroded by dementia, the family legacy she entrusted to Jack is now owned by banks and strangers. And Jack’s mind has begun to fail, too, as concussion after concussion forces him to carry around a notebook of names that separate friend from foe. But in a single twisted night Jack is derailed. Losing the money that will clear his debt with the queen of Delta vice, and forcing Jack into the fighting pit one last time the stakes nothing less than life or death…

I would like to begin this review by heartily congratulating Michael Farris Smith on writing a book that is so beautifully plotted and exquisitely characterised that I’m already doubting my ability to do justice to the book in this review. I’ll try…

The Fighter is at times so painfully brutal in terms of the physicality of violence that the author presents, but this is tempered by some of the most sensitive and soulful prose that I have encountered for some time.  In a throwaway comment on social media I described Smith as the bastard lovechild of Cormac McCarthy and Willy Vlautin, as his writing exudes all the pain, brutality, and baring of the soul of his characters that these two writers excel in. Jack Bouchard- the fighter of the title- is a man metaphorically and physically bruised and battered by the life he has led, and suffering in the wake of bad decisions and wrong turnings that he has made. As he teeters on the edge of financial ruin, and in the face the impending loss of the one person who, to use a boxing analogy, has fought his corner, since his less than stable childhood, we see a man at his lowest ebb. More importantly as dependent as he is on gambling, illegal medication, and fighting the physical effects of a life spent punched and pummelled as a prize-fighter, Smith loads this character with an incredibly strong moral centre, and a man capable of a depth of emotion that his actions and outward appearance belie. Smith plays with our expectations of this character from the beginning, as he moves Bouchard from an almost clichéd portrayal of a punch drunk wastrel, to this incredibly empathetic character. The characterisation of Bouchard is phenomenal, as we experience his extreme lows, and see his increasingly desperate reaching towards a safe haven and stability in his life. The scenes with Maryann, his adoptive mother, and his recollections of the life lived with her, are beautifully poised and incredibly moving, and there is such a melancholic grace about Bouchard as he teeters on the edge of loss. Bathed in pathos, but not cloyingly so, Smith achieves a rare balance between the essential tough masculinity of Bouchard, and the more sensitive core of his emotional regret and sadness – it’s masterfully done.

Parallel to Bouchard, we enter into the less than stable existence of a young woman, Annette, who bears her pain in a strange parallel to Bouchard. As much as he wears the scars of fights lost and won, Annette has chosen to represent her life, and channel her emotions and thoughts with her body art. As we see her initially in the roustabout world of the travelling show, with no sense of permanence of rootedness, her and Bouchard’s paths crossing seems inevitable, opening up a whole other world of emotional bargaining and personal revelation. I liked very much her curious mix of strength and vulnerability, and how, as a reader, we recognise this symbiosis of emotion that Smith imbues in these two characters. Also, with shades of Elmore Leonard, Smith constructs a small band of despicable criminal characters, to whom Bouchard is indebted, replete with their southern redneck mentality, and violent compulsions, to raise the stakes for Bouchard’s survival. They play beautifully in the overarching feel of violence and hopelessness that permeates the book, leaving the reader in hope of more uplifting revelations…

The sultry, suffocating feel of Mississippi drips from every page, and the laconic cadence of the Deep South, resonates in your mind, in the stripped down, bare bones dialogue, that says as much in the gaps that it leaves, as the spaces it fills. The book oozes atmosphere and tension, and as Smith weaves his tale, I would defy you not to surrender to this dark,  brutal, but utterly beautiful story with its glimmers of redemption, and the power of human connection. Cannot praise The Fighter enough- highly recommended.

(With thanks to No Exit Press for the ARC)

Catch up with the blog tour at these excellent sites: 

Robert Bailey- Between Black and White

between-black-and-white-cover

In 1966 in Pulaski, Tennessee, Bocephus Haynes watched in horror as his father was brutally murdered by ten local members of the Ku Klux Klan. As an African American lawyer practicing in the birthplace of the Klan years later, Bo has spent his life pursuing justice in his father’s name. But when Andy Walton, the man believed to have led the lynch mob forty-five years earlier, ends up murdered in the same spot as Bo’s father, Bo becomes the prime suspect.

Retired law professor Tom McMurtrie, Bo’s former teacher and friend, is a year removed from returning to the courtroom. Now McMurtrie and his headstrong partner, Rick Drake, must defend Bo on charges of capital murder while hunting for Andy Walton’s true killer. In a courtroom clash that will put their reputations and lives at stake, can McMurtrie and Drake release Bo from a lifetime of despair? Or will justice remain hidden somewhere between black and white?

Prepare to immerse yourself in the tinderbox tension of racially divided Tennessee in Robert Bailey’s legal thriller Between Black and White, and what a thriller it is…

This is an incredibly character driven book from the accused and extremely empathetic Bocephus Haynes, to the small band of men dedicated to clearing his name. Haynes, having witnessed the death of his father at the hands of the KKK as a young child, has devoted his life to both the law, and to bringing his father’s killers to justice. What Bailey so ardently portrays within Haynes’ character is the toll this has wreaked on both his sense of self, and his relationship with those closest to him. He is a man of warring morality, with his strong belief in the due process of law, and yet the primal urge to dispense justice outside of it, having made physical threats to the now aged Andy Walton, the man he believes was instrumental in his father’s killing. Haynes rides a gamut of emotions throughout the books, bringing the reader with him, as he is essentially a good man but is he a killer too? Bailey carefully manipulates his character from the outspoken and strident avenger to a man placed firmly in the hands of his legal team whose endeavours on his behalf will ultimately decide his fate.

His retired law professor Tom McMurtrie, young lawyer Rick Drake, and ex-divorce lawyer, now drunkard, Ray Pickalew, make up the merry band fighting to clear Haynes’ name, going into battle against ballsy local prosecutor Helen Lewis. All four of these characters are incredibly well-drawn, and Haynes’ team in particular are put through a real emotional and physical wringer as the plot progresses. The ties that bind in terms of personal loyalty to Haynes are stretched and tightened by Bailey’s assured depiction of McMurtrie and Pickalew in particular, when surprising revelations come to the surface as the courtroom action comes to the forefront. The characterisation, and the interplay between these protagonists, hold the plot and pace extremely well throughout, and Bailey lines up a similar crew of dastardly and not-so dastardly surrounding cast perfectly placed to thwart or aid the defence of Haynes.

The setting of Pulaski, Tennessee adds another layer to the plot, being the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan, and a town steeped in racial tension, with a chequered and violent history. Bailey takes some interesting diversions along the way with his depiction of the town and its history that bolster the atmosphere of the book, but never to the detriment of the pace of the story. The courtroom itself instantly brought to mind shades of To Kill A Mockingbird, with its segregated layout, and the references to the social and legal history of Pulaski itself. Bailey’s measured use of his chosen location lifts and enhances his already assured plot further, and I found these interludes of potted history very interesting indeed, as we bear witness to not only the current events but those of forty five years previously. He also depicts very well the strata of power and influence within this community, again linked so closely to the history of the town, and the seemingly unassailable challenge that Haynes’ legal team are confronted with to bring those with local stature to justice.

I will confess that legal thrillers as a rule are not really a favourite genre of mine, but I do have a keen interest in the chequered racial history of the United States, so was drawn to Between Black and White for that reason. With Bailey’s own background as a lawyer adding a real authenticity to the plot, and his exemplary characterisation, the control of tension, and pitch perfect use of historical fact throughout, I thoroughly enjoyed this one. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Thomas and Mercer for the ARC)