If you’re looking for an uplifting escape from the harsh cruelties of life, don’t read anything from Michael Farris Smith. Blackwood, the title itself cold and bleak, is the latest example of his evocative storytelling.
The novel follows several characters as their lives intersect in rural Red Bluff, Mississippi, a miserable town of lost hopes, dead-end dreams and misfortune. Surrounded by hills covered in a sea of overgrown kudzu vines, the town is constantly on the verge of being swallowed whole and forgotten entirely. Not that that would be a bad thing. Travelers would be advised to simply pass on by and not linger, but not everyone has that choice.
Into this dread landscape come three down-on-their-luck individuals with nowhere else to turn, simply identified as the man, the woman and the boy. The trio take up root on the outskirts of town, living out of their broken-down car while scrounging through trash bins and alleyways for food scraps and supplies.
At the same time, Colburn Evans returns to town after a long absence to confront his past and forge a new start. When he was younger, Colburn witnessed his father’s death by suicide. His failure to save his father when he had the chance has haunted him ever since.
Blackwood is startling, brutal and eerie as events spiral out of control for both the boy and Colburn. The boy’s plight seems to mirror Colburn’s, who laments that no one has ever said “it’s not your fault,” four words that could’ve changed everything for him. Smith weaves the pair’s stories together in a hauntingly memorable fashion.
Blackwood places Smith firmly among the masters of Southern gothic literature.