S.A. Cosby has taken the literary world by storm. His first release from a major publisher, 2020’s Blacktop Wasteland, proved his ability to scale the professional heights without compromising his identity as a Black man raised in rural Virginia, even in an industry marred by severe inequities. Buttressed by its antiheroic protagonist, Beauregard, the car chase-strewn Southern noir made 22 best of the year lists, won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Mystery and was swiftly optioned for film, bringing Cosby a level of attention that he hadn’t yet seen in his 20-plus-year career.
“The response to Blacktop Wasteland has been beyond my wildest dreams,” Cosby says from his home in Virginia. “I’ve been amazed by the fact that people are willing to take a walk through the shoes of someone like Beauregard.”
Now Cosby returns with Razorblade Tears, which centers on the unlikely partnership between two ex-convicts: Ike, who is African American, and Buddy Lee, who is white. They pair up to avenge the untimely murders of their two sons, who were married and living seemingly harmless lives. As they investigate this mysterious tragedy, which seems to be connected to both a white supremacist biker gang and a furtive young woman named Tangerine, Ike and Buddy Lee go on a thrilling journey of self-discovery and social interrogation across the book’s 336 pages.
Razorblade Tears is a mission-driven novel that finds Cosby directly deconstructing the cultural plague of homophobia, both in larger society and in the Black community. Ike and Buddy Lee’s quest for vengeance is partly fueled by the guilt they feel over their rejection of their queer-identifying sons while they were still alive. The genesis of the book was a conversation Cosby had with a Black gay friend who was struggling to decide whether to come out to his parents.
“When I was a kid, someone calling you the N-word and somebody calling you a derogatory term for someone in the LGBTQ community would cause you to fight on sight,” Cosby says. “And in some instances, it was almost like people felt like it was worse to be called a derogatory name for an LGBTQ member than it was to be called the N-word. We really need to confront the issue of homophobia in our community, and as a crime writer, I decided to look at it through the prism of the genre that I love.”
"I love my hometown . . . I love the people there. But that doesn’t absolve myself or them from the truth."
Ike and Buddy Lee’s quest for vengeance forces them to question their complicated ideas about manhood, which have caused harm to themselves and others throughout their lives. Masculinity is a subject that Cosby has never shied away from in either his personal and creative life. “I think there’s such a convoluted sense of masculinity in the South and in rural towns and small towns,” he says. “I think that we have to expand our definition of what we consider masculine. That’s definitely an issue I’m exploring in Razorblade Tears.”
The rural South is not just a backdrop but also a generative force in Cosby’s writing. Through the lens of crime fiction, the author explores the contradictory nature of Southern living. Cosby grew up in Mathews County, a rural area a couple of hours away from Virginia’s largest city, Virginia Beach, and home to some 8,000 residents. “I love my hometown, and every book I write is basically [about] my hometown in disguise. I love the people there. But that doesn’t absolve myself or them from the truth,” he says.
“Living in a rural environment, you have a sense of community and belonging that I don’t know you get anywhere else,” he continues. “At the same time, I live in a small town where there’s a gigantic Confederate statue right in front of the courthouse. I’m fully aware and cognizant of these diametrically opposed ideas. I have Black love, a Black family and a sense of belonging while living in a town where some of the inhabitants still idealize racist traitors.”
Cosby’s writing career reflects the same type of resolve that his characters display as they navigate their arduous lives. “It was a long and circuitous route to getting published,” he notes. Cosby fell in love with the craft when he first published a letter to Santa in the local newspaper at 7 years old. He studied English in college but was forced to drop out after his mother became ill. Since then, life has taken Cosby through a variety of spaces and occupations, but he always remained committed to writing. “I never gave up, I just kept plugging away at it,” Cosby, who is now 47, says.
In 2011, he published a short story in a small quarterly called Thug Lit. “That was the beginning of my career as a crime writer,” he says. “I wrote more short stories that got published. I ended up publishing a short novel called My Darkest Prayer through an independent publishing firm. And then from that, I took the leap and wrote Blacktop Wasteland.”
Like Blacktop Wasteland, which won acclaim for its potent mix of social commentary and white-knuckle thrills, Razorblade Tears also offers understated yet powerful commentary about America’s racial problem. Many people, from all points on the political spectrum, reduce racism to moments of interpersonal conflict and unequal access. But as Cosby demonstrates throughout the book, racism also festers in the nuances and subtexts. This can especially be seen through the adroit and well-voiced conversations between Ike and Buddy Lee, who don’t like each other but are forced to work together.
“There are scenes where Buddy Lee says casually racist things to Ike, and literally in the midst of them trying to find vengeance for their children, Ike has to break it down to explain his experience,” Cosby says. “There is a scene where Buddy Lee is looking at Ike’s lawn care truck and is like, ‘Hey man, you talk so much about racism, but you got this nice truck, and you got a business.’ And Ike is like, ‘Yeah, I got this nice truck, but I get pulled over like once a month. I’m doing all right, but when I go in the store, people don’t respect me.’ So, they’re having conversations about race and what race means. They’re growing in respect to their appreciation for their sons and their sons’ love, but they’re also growing and changing in respect to each other.”
In addition to homophobia, masculinity and race, Razorblade Tears examines poverty, classism and rural/urban divides. Cosby admits that grappling with such serious issues caused anxiety during the writing process. “It was terrifying, but as a writer you’ve got to challenge yourself,” he says. “I don’t think any of us are free or valued until everybody is free or valued. So I wanted to push myself and see if I could talk about those issues in a voice that was true to me.”
Cosby handles such material with great care. He conducted serious research to ensure that he could address these issues without causing further harm. “I think research is 30% to 40% of your writing if you’re trying to do it well,” he explains. “If you’re tackling something that is outside your purview, you’ve got to know what you’re talking about. And I think not only doing my own research but also having authenticity readers or sensitivity readers is an important part of the process.”
Razorblade Tears’ commitment to addressing serious social issues is balanced by temperate pacing and a consistent rhythmic pulse that reflect the energy of rural Southern life. It’s like the blues, with Cosby as a contemporary manifestation of legendary bluesmen like Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker, whom he cites as influences.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of Razorblade Tears.
In further accordance with the bluesman aesthetic, Cosby’s work is also creative ethnography, pulling from the everyday oral traditions of African Americans. “I grew up around a lot of backyard orators and barbecue philosophers. So I listened to my uncles and them trash talk over a spades or dominoes game. Or I would ride my bike down to the basketball court and listen to them trash talk,” he says. “Listening to the way people talk is a huge influence on me.”
Cosby’s investment in realistic dialogue and detailed characterization is never clearer than in Razorblade Tears’ incredibly rich and nuanced portraits of Black criminals, those who orbit them and others on the periphery of the law. Ike is a formidable character, a natural leader who commands respect in every space he enters. His temperament has been shaped, at least in part, by blood battles on the streets and in prison. Throughout the book, Ike manages his violent disposition as though it’s a chronic illness: It’s kept mostly at bay, but there’s always risk of a flare-up.
Some may question why Cosby, a man of such immense talents, would spend his time writing about Black criminals, especially considering the way Black people have been both symbolically and physically criminalized in this country. He is fearless and candid in response. “I think the value in exploring this particular aspect of our lives is to show that people can make mistakes, and still ultimately find redemption,” he says. “I have family members who have rightly and wrongly been convicted of crime, and they’ve come out and pulled themselves together and got second chances. If we try to hide that, then we’re no better than someone who says they see no color. We have to explore the full width and breadth of the Black experience.”
As a Black writer at a time of great social and political division, Cosby feels a deep sense of responsibility. “As an African American writer, your first charge is to tell the truth about your experience,” says Cosby. He hopes that his own truth-telling will inspire others to do the same. “I would love for a little Black boy or girl to pick up my book and be like, ‘Wow, man, this dude is doing this. If he is publishing, then I can do it, too.’”
Author photo by Sam Sauter Photography.