By Laurie Rockenbeck
S.A. Cosby’s Blacktop Wasteland is a fast-paced story that throws us against the seat and makes us grab for the “oh-shit-bar” from start to finish. It would be easy to dismiss this as a summer read, a fun heist story with exciting chase scenes that compels the reader to keep turning those pages with one satisfying twist after another. That would be a mistake. While Blacktop Wasteland is all of that, it is also an indictment against classism and racism written with a subtlety that eschews preachiness. Instead, Cosby gives us poverty-stricken Virginia with its closed strip malls, trailer parks, and white supremacists drawn with a voice so southern you can hear the twang as you read.
Beauregard “Bug” Montage is short on rent, and he turns to the one thing he knows will grow the thousand bucks in his pocket into two—drag racing. The old Duster he’s driving is a lot like Bug; what’s under the hood is much more complex than the exterior. The Duster isn’t just any car; it’s a proxy for Bug’s father, a man who disappeared years ago and whom he continues to idolize, worship, and revere with the pain of a child who’s never dealt with the grief. That he’s seen death early and often permeates the story and Bug’s interior thoughts:
The Grim Reaper sneaks up behind you and squeezes you until shit fills your adult diaper and an artery bursts in your chest. He works his bony fingers in your guts and makes your own cells eat you alive from the inside. He skull fucks you until your brain retreats inside itself and you forget how to even breathe. He guides the hands of a man you’ve wronged and aims his gun at your face. There is no dignity in death. Beauregard had seen enough people die to realize that. There’s only fear and confusion and pain.
Without Bug’s deep connection to the Duster, it would be difficult to suspend our disbelief as Bug makes one awful decision after another. Fortunately, Cosby gives us plenty with which to empathize with Bug’s plight. Nothing goes as Bug plans, and his financial burdens mount to the point where he is absolutely desperate. When Kia, his wife, reminds Bug he could sell the Duster for twenty-five grand and solve much of their financial woes, we are poised to buy into Bug’s unwillingness to sell this stand-in for his father.
Instead of selling the Duster (or doing any of the other reasonable things most people would do in real life), Bug chooses to return to his criminal past. He’s the best wheel-man in Virginia, and he has old connections he can draw upon to find his way back in for one last job to pay off his debts.
Bug goes against his gut feelings and agrees to do one big job with people he knows he shouldn’t trust, Ronnie and Reggie Sessions. The brothers describe themselves as ‘white trash,’ but Cosby brings complexity to these characters by reminding us even the nastiest people have emotions and people they love. The brothers will do anything for each other. Ronnie spent three years in jail for something Reggie did because he knew Reggie is too soft to handle jail time. This bond proves disastrous for Bug who refuses to acknowledge a myriad of warning signals flashing in bright neon off these men. The Sessions are only interested in blow and booty, a hungry greed with little regard for anything beyond their own interests. Bug is driven by the need to provide security for himself and his family in a world that keeps pushing him down. The unifying force behind all of them is abject poverty brought on by decades of systemic classism.
We read with hands over our faces and peeking out through our fingers at disastrous turn after disastrous turn wondering if Bug is going to survive, let alone how. Blacktop Wasteland is Southern Noir in every best way possible.
Laurie Rockenbeck was raised a Navy brat and moved around a lot as a kid. She lives near Seattle with her family, two cats, and a dwindling number of chickens. She graduated with a degree in journalism and quickly learned that writing fiction was a lot more fun. With a grandmother who started every story with: this is a true lie…, there is no doubt that story-telling and exaggeration are part of her genetic make-up. Rockenbeck has her private investigation license but prefers writing about made up cases over investigating real ones. Her mystery series features Seattle Police Department’s only trans male homicide detective and a pro dominatrix turned PI. She is pursuing her MFA in Fiction at UC Riverside’s Palm Desert Campus. Visit Laurie at LaurieRockenbeck.com.