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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

I picked up "A Swollen Red Sun" by Matthew McBride at the library on a whim. I’m glad I did. Imagine taking Sons of Anarchy, Justified, and Breaking Bad and mixing them all together. I love those shows, mostly for the writing despite the criminal hero worship. This novel has a little bit of all them and it makes for an exciting, quick read.

Gasconade County, Missouri is the setting for a tale full of drug dealers, crooked cops, small-town troubles and broken dreams. It’s an area known as the meth capital of the world, and there is a large network in place to distribute. The network includes a sheriff, family members, inmates at the local prison and a crazy fire-and-brimstone preacher who may be kidnapping women to add as wives in his mountaintop compound. But of course, with criminals, it’s everybody for themselves and anybody can be expendable.

Our story begins with two sheriff’s deputies preparing to haul in a local drug dealer named Jerry Dean Skaggs. One of the deputies discovers a cache of $52,000 hidden at the bottom of a litter pan and takes it. This sets off the plot for the entire book. Deputy Dale Banks is the straight as an arrow lawman, but the lure of that much cash proves to be too much.

All of Gasconade County seems to be poor in this telling. Banks is trying to support a family on the little money available for his duties in the Sheriff’s Department. He stashes the money on the farm of his friend, the elderly Olen Brandt. While taking the money is completely out of character with his normal actions, there are times he wishes he could give his children just a little bit more than bare minimum.

When Jerry Dean arrives at his trailer and finds his stash missing, he realizes he could be in big trouble. Some of that money is owed to the preacher, Butch Pogue. Without that cash, Jerry Dean might not be long for the world. Maybe it was his sheriff contact reminding him who was really in control. Or it could be any combination of the family members or lowlife business partners out to push him out of the game. No one can be trusted.

In the meantime, Jerry Dean needs to get his supplies to Pogue so that the preacher can make the “best crank in Missouri.” Jerry Dean forcibly relieves Olen Brandt of two tanks of anhydrous ammonia. Delivering the truck and tanks to Pogue’s mountaintop, Skaggs catches a glimpse of the preacher’s latest kidnapped “wife.” He is instantly smitten and devises a plan to free her from the evil religious leader.

Skaggs threatens Banks and his partner, trying to figure out which one could have stolen the money. Having lived in the area his whole life, to him neither seemed like the type to delve into the criminal world as such. He is genuinely surprised when he discovers it is Banks. Is there a new player in the game?

Mayhem ensues throughout the entire county as each faction splits and attempts the gain the upper hand in any aspect of the drug game. Bodies begin to drop on both sides of the law. In the end when Banks goes back for his hidden, stolen money, he finds nothing. While his stash is gone, he comes to the realization that the money went to a far greater place than it could have with anyone else.

In "A Swollen Red Sun," Matthew McBride writes a story that takes place in his own backyard. He grew up near the actual Gasconade County in Missouri. He describes the backcountry of his hometown with great aplomb, to the point that the scenery itself becomes a main character in the book. All the other characters are equally well written, bringing the story to vibrant life.

The novel is cut into short, quick scenes from each character’s point of view. These snippets pack a lot of action and drama into a very small space. It is a very fast paced novel that packs a lot of punch into a relatively short book. At 243 pages its one of the shorter books I’ve read lately.

One of the hardest things to get through in the book is the dialogue, including the inner dialogue. It’s written in Gasconade County dialect. Until you get used to that and the colloquialisms, this story will be a little difficult. Once you get past that, "A Swollen Red Sun" will satisfy most readers. Matthew McBride’s prose will engage the reader and keep him or her turning the pages and wishing for more.

Craig Bacon likes to read. Sometimes he likes reading more than talking to people — especially after reading Facebook.

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