There is something powerful in literature that truly captures ugliness in a perfect way. Think about the work of Daniel Woodrell, the filthiest, booziest Charles Bukowski poems, or the grittiest, most brutal passages of Cormac McCarthy’s oeuvre and you’ll get a sense of what I’m talking about. Encountering that captured and exposed unattractiveness, that unbelievable, painfully dirty reality, is something that only happens in fiction when a talented author sets out to create work that isn’t afraid to deconstruct humans in order to show our most vile, petty, vicious, evil tendencies. Jon Boilard’s Settright Road is a collection of stories that take place in the same geography and in which a group of residents go through a barrage of situations in which hope seems too far away, upward social mobility is a forgotten dream, and escape, while almost impossible, seems like the only answer.
The 1980s. Massachusetts mill towns that have seen better days. Rusty cars and juke joint fights. Lots of dope and violence and desperation and shattered dreams. All these elements are the backdrop for the stories Boilard offers in this collection. The result of all those cohesive elements working together is a group of narratives that read like a novel about a place and an era. The 19 tales offered here range from a young man dreaming of escape and suddenly confronting fatherhood to a boy who helps his mother in the worst way possible. There is plenty of drinking, a lot of abuse, men who only know how to communicate with physical violence, bloody bar brawls, drugs, and broken relationships between people who seem unable to escape each other simply because there’s no place to go. Although the subject matters discussed never strays far from uncomfortable territory, Boilard’s writing, at once heavy and very lean, allows enough unexpected poetry to seep into the narratives to turn them into something special:
Your father turns toward you and in the near dusk his face takes on a blue-metal hue like it’s forged of the same stuff they make shotguns from. Stray cats so skinny they’re just brown bags of sticks hide in the glooms high up on the rafters, and they watch you with vampire eyes.
Offering a synopsis of each story would be a waste of time. What matters here is that, with each narrative, Boilard elevates rural noir into new territory and mixes it in with literary fiction in a way that the collection hits with the force of a California-bound freight train. Rural noir too often focuses on unsavory relationships, just-out-of-prison stories, and the drunk-at-the-strip-joint-at-midday aesthetic, but they seldom manage to cut down into the core of what makes individuals who live in these circumstances act the way they do; they fail to full explore the effect that pain, being landlocked, and desperation have on the human psyche. Boilard’s work is different. He writes about the people and then about their circumstances. That small change makes this collection special and yanks some of his characters out of the realm of complete losers so that readers can, as soon as they’re able to get over their flaws, start rooting for them.
There is something that outstanding literature about a place achieves. The work of the aforementioned Woodrell does it. The work of Donald Ray Pollock also pulls it off. That something is telling the stories of individuals in rich detail but also in a way that captures the feeling of a place and, in extreme cases, an entire country. This is precisely what Boilard does here, and the gritty slice of Americana he presents is instantly recognizable:
Perfect darkness drops in stages like a carpet bomb campaign, bonfires appear and pop teenage delight. Eight cylinder American engines howl around Blount Park, white-wall tires screech in wicked syncopation, stereos spill vintage Van Halen and Def Leppard and Bon Jovi into Lexington Avenue, back-dropped by an odd cacophony of crickets. Somebody shakes a clacking can over his shoulder and spray pains the words SUCK SHIT on the glass storefront of Collin’s Bike Shop. Other drunks older and more established in their vices, stumble from Lion’s Lair smelling of pizza and Jameson and two-stroke motor oil.
They that love and violence are equal in that both leave you broken but wanting more. This applies perfectly to Settright Road, which packs a hell of a punch and ultimately leaves you wanting more its author’s words. If you enjoy great writing that pays attention to detail and unfiltered viciousness, pick this one up as soon as possible.
by Jon Boilard
Dzanc Books; 184 p.