A Swollen Red Sun by Matthew McBride

red sunThis book seemed like it should be right up my alley: Rural noir, set in my home state of Missouri, written by a Missourian, featuring various down-and-out characters, and it even got positive reviews in both Book List and Publisher’s Weekly. While the book kept me reading with a plot that was reasonably compelling, the cartoonish characters and black and white morality left a sour taste in my mouth.

The story centers on Dale Banks, a Deputy Sheriff in Gasconade County, Missouri (where the author himself resides). Banks and his fellow law enforcement officers struggle to keep on top of the crime that poverty and meth has brought to their once sleepy area. One day, while looking to bust a local dealer, Banks discovers a stash of drug money. Thinking about his family and feeling fed up with the local hoodlums causing so many problems, Banks impulsively takes the money.

Of course this theft opens up a whole raft of problems for Banks, and exposes the various links between the local drug trade and corruption in local politics and law enforcement, which definitely kept me reading. The characters, though, left much to be desired. Both the good guys and the bad guys lacked complexity, with the bad guys seeming almost ghoulish cartoons of familiar stereotypes of “white trash”. The female characters, while all tertiary to the story, are particularly delineated: we have on one hand saintly, pretty, loyal wives; on the other, morbidly obese, sex-obsessed (and sometimes incestuous), scheming, cheating sluts.

What I like about the best rural noir (think Daniel Woodrell here, although others can be great without being quite as literary) is they present complicated characters who may be struggling and making poor choices, but whose motivations make sense to the reader and are easy to empathize with. A Swollen Red Sun totally lacked that kind of complexity and character development, which made the sexism and gruesome violence even harder to take.

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