Thursday, November 3, 2016

Review: "Hurt People" by Cote Smith

Hurt People, the debut novel of writer Cote Smith is a real barn burner and easily one of the year’s best. It covers familiar territory but does so with gusto, bravery and a keen sense of adolescent wonderment and precariousness. It skillfully inserts the reader into the shoes of these two unnamed brothers whose world is small yet still shrinking, whose adult counterparts are not much better off, and even a faint-hearted glimpse at a different world, or an interesting one, is enough to make one of them fall into a black hole of menace and the other one follow willingly due to his brotherly duty. It is a dark novel with dark themes and great amounts of sadness, but it is told through the eyes of a young boy whose worldview and intelligence is limited to what his parents tell him and what he sees on the schlocky B-horror films he likes to watch. I always try to make note of what other books I am reminded of while reading, and the one of many that kept coming to mind was Scott Heim’s first novel, Mysterious Skin, oddly enough, another novel that turns the barren landscape of Kansas into wasteland of shaky dreams and nightmarish predators using eloquent, poetic descriptions of rural economic and social decay to create a kind of modern fairy tale where the goblins walk on two feet and the prize at the end is the discovery of love in our imperfect relationships. At the beginning of the novel, it is the start of summer. It is 1988 and in Leavenworth, Kansas, a city surrounded by four different prisons, two brothers simply want to spend their time at the pool of their apartment complex. But beyond that, we see second handedly the world of their parents falling part: they are recently divorced, and the mother, Aggie, has shacked up with a quietly cruel ex-con named Rick, who also happens to be her boss at the golf course she works at, and their dad, a respected policeman, is exhausted by the continued search for an escaped con and finds relief in the bottle and poor decisions. Out of this windstorm of neglect comes Chris, an older man the boys meet at the pool, who slowly seduces the older brother by teaching him new dives and letting him in on certain secrets, like what the tattoo on his ankles means. Slowly, his influence begins to poison the older brother, who acts out toward his mother, father and Rick, until things take a really dark turn during an apocalyptic tornado. I didn’t expect this novel to have such a dreamlike quality, much like the abduction angle in Heim’s novel. For me they worked because of how much empathy the two young boys emitted, even when they were at each other’s throats. It adds another layer of otherworldliness to action, especially one scene near the end that takes place in the woods behind their apartment complex. Filled to the brim with witty scenes, revelatory dialogue and a haunting final few pages, this adult novel with youthful energy was a dark, brooding pleasure. 
Rating: 5/5

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