If you spend any time in the social media circles concerned with crime fiction, in all likelihood you will have heard of S. A. Crosby and his book, Blacktop Wasteland. It has been out in the US for ages, during which time I was reading a tonne of positive commentary. Then I stumbled across the little publicised fact that an Australian edition has been released.
Beauregard ‘Bug’ Montage is a hard-working mechanic with a wife and two young sons, who wants a happy marriage, for his kids to get more that he has out of life, and his auto repair business to do well. Unfortunately, said business is just a few weeks from going under financially. On top of this he needs to find a large amount of money to keep his embittered mother in aged care, where she is dying of cancer (seriously, the US health system is a crime story in itself). He also has to somehow also rustle up college tuition fees for his teenage daughter from an earlier relationship.
Beauregard has a previous criminal life he is trying to leave behind. This is hard because he was very good at what he did – driving. The ghosts of his former life also hang around him in the form of his late father, a charismatic criminal in his own right who disappeared to parts unknown when Beauregard was a child, leaving his son with a lifelong love/hate obsession for him.
So, when the opportunity presents itself, via a rather sleazy former associate, to take part in one last job, wheelman for a diamond heist, Beauregard doesn’t feel like he has much choice. Actually, he feels like he doesn’t have any choice at all. Of course, it all ends up with Beauregard facing a world of pain and dealing with criminal cross and double cross.
It might be that I am getting old. Or it could be that in these uncertain times I find a comfort in old narrative redone well. There is not a lot that is new in terms of the plot of Blacktop Wasteland. There is a touch of Donald Westlake aka Richard Stark’s Parker character, mixed with James Sallis’s 2005 novel, Drive, and a very generous dollop of southern American rural noir. Beauregard even has a criminal mentor of sorts who fronts a wrecking yard, which helps out in terms of the disposal of hot getaway cars and inconvenient bodies.
That said, this is an excellent variation on the wheelman in a heist gone wrong trope of crime fiction. The prose is good, the plotting is tight and solid. Blacktop Wasteland is also a pretty blistering depiction, not just of black life on the margins, but the pressures felt by working people generally in America. This is the one aspect of the story that can possibly lay a claim to breaking new ground. It is also one of the strongest aspects of the novel. Crosby weaves an incredibly effective picture of a man who is slowly being strangled, through no fault of his own, by the economic forces around him. Forces which leave him no avenue but crime to get out of.
Add to this the fact that Crosby does not take his foot off the pedal one little bit in terms of what Beauregard has to do when the heist goes wrong. Things get very heavy and Beauregard has to engage in some very nasty tactics and go to some very dark places to extract himself from the mess he has got into.
This is Crosby’s fourth novel and I suspect we are going to be hearing a lot more about him. Blacktop Wasteland is well worth your time if you dig noir fiction and, in particular, a heist gone wrong story, done very well.
Australian readers can pick it up via Hachette.