A Crazy Trip to Arkansas
Have you ever watched a car wreck as it takes place? Not a fender bender, but an actual crash. You realize the collision is inevitable. You stare, transfixed. It is hard not to watch an accident: its tragedy is also fascinating. John Brandon’s Arkansas shares these awful yet strangely alluring qualities.
Arkansas is a story of crime in the American South. But this novel defies categorization. Too many crime novels are conventionally plotted, with easily foreseen narrative twists. Arkansas works because it does not follow this conventional track. It is not a classic crime novel, like The Godfather. It is neither a mystery nor a Chandler noir. The Coen Brothers’ Fargo is the most apt comparison, a wonderfully twisted, multi-faceted look at crime in the rural United States. Fargo is at once darkly funny and brutal. Most of all, Fargo is character-driven. Its plot is not as important as identifying, in varying degrees, with its players. This character-based dark humor is the signature of Arkansas.
The protagonists, Swin Ruiz and Kyle Ribb, are caught inside an intricate web of smuggling. A college drop-out, Swin Ruiz runs away from his Kentucky family, only to find employment in Memphis with Frog, an enigmatic crime boss whom no one has seen in person for years. In Memphis, Swin meets up with Kyle, whose mother died when he was twelve in a freak accident involving a circuit-breaker and a puddle of water in a laundry room. They are then sent to work at a state park in Arkansas. Once there, Swin and Kyle are swept up in a series of events that leads to multiple deaths and they end up with $50,000 of Frog’s cash in their drying machine.
Arkansas avoids a central, linear plot: instead, it dives in and out of a cloud of events surrounding Swin and Kyle. When we first meet Swin, he is still attending Vanderbilt. After getting caught plagiarizing, Swin loses his scholarship, becomes an apathetic student, and decides to start stealing: “When bags were unattended or cars left open or display cases unlatched, when laps were swum and basketball played, when watches and bracelets were left in shallow boxes behind counters, waiting to be repaired, he stole.” What makes Swin different from the average petty thief is the pleasure he takes in his crimes. “He pawned the women’s jewelry and wore the men’s. The chance that one of his victims would recognize his necklace or ring thrilled Swin.” Swin is looking for attention, as he tries unsuccessfully to fit into the college world.
Brazen and confident, and also a pathological liar, Swin is the opposite of his foil, Kyle. A deceptively quiet character, Kyle is capable of unplanned violence. After watching a couple at a skating rink, Kyle inexplicably decides to go to the boyfriend’s patio and bash all his furniture. Finally, the boyfriend and girlfriend confront him:
This scene brings out Kyle’s brutality, but also his inexplicable calm. Kyle is straightforward, unassuming, and dispassionate.
On the other hand, Kyle, for all his violent acts, is fiercely loyal. Kyle cares about Swin: “Kyle felt he had no business knowing Swin, but maybe no one did. Maybe Swin was his own race. Kyle had often worried about Swin, had thought about the fact that Swin might get killed.” This concern is redemptive: Kyle does care about someone, at least as much as he can. His compassion allows us to feel pity for him.
Aside from the protagonist’s exploits, Brandon engages the reader through the mysterious Frog. Intermittently spaced throughout the book, Frog’s story is told in the second-person. When we first meet Frog, we are forced to assumed his identity: “After graduation, you, Ken Hovan, stock groceries and build prefabricated sheds in the yards of rich guys out in Germantown.” By addressing the reader directly, Brandon brings us straight into the world of Arkansas. Brandon’s use of the second person allows us to become emotionally attached to Frog. His insecurities, criminal deeds, and flaws become our own. Frog betrays his boss, landing him in prison. However, Frog is fiercely loyal towards his protégées, Thomas and Tim: “You will get a condo for the three of them [You, Tim, and Thomas], and in a year or so, if things pan out, you’ll move out and give it to them. In time, they might take over the operation, cutting you in for a percentage.” This passage is revealing. Towards Thomas and Tim, Frog is generous and paternal. Swin and Kyle are imperfect, yet we sympathize with them. Frog, for all his brutal actions and double-crosses, also seems decent enough, even honorable at points.
Brandon’s terse writing style suits his book. Nothing is hidden between the lines. Crime must be done so it is: “When he turned around, Kyle shot him twice in the chest and watched him come to the ground, looking here and there like he didn’t recognize the place. […] He was a spider, and Kyle had squashed him.” This is one of my favorite passages from Arkansas. The direct statements come one after another. Each sentence is exciting. These short sentences help Brandon advance the story, picking up momentum along the way. Also, they coincide with our views of the characters. Kyle and Swin approach their tasks with a straightforward and linear mindset where self-doubt and morality have no place. Brandon’s prose fits well into the mindset of these characters: They do what is necessary, no more, no less. Arkansas is a mere 230 pages, but it is not short on action, laughs, or good writing. It keeps the audience interested by intimately involving the reader, expertly bringing the story into life, grabbing readers and thrusting them into the thick of things with Swin, Kyle, and Frog. These characters are admittedly troubled, but they take us on an unforgettable trip through the state parks and freeways of Arkansas
Rob Mrkonich ’11 can be filed under easy reading.
...............Courtesy of John Brandon