Reviewed by Basil Ransome-Davies
Erik Storey’s début novel, which bids to inaugurate a series, comes garlanded with approving quotes from established authors Lee Child and Jeffrey Deaver and has been compared by reviewers to the ‘drifter’ fiction of Joe R. Lansdale. Like Lansdale’s hero Hap Collins, Clyde Barr in Nothing Short of Dying is an adventurous throwback paradoxically more civilised and authentic than modern, corporate, paved-over America. His past includes service as a mercenary soldier in Africa and South America, but he is clear that he fought exclusively for the ‘good guys’, implicitly for the downtrodden against the powerful and corrupt. Barr is bad-ass, but also a reflective moral agent.
The novel, narrated first-person by Barr, opens ‘about a week after I’d been released from prison.’ Bad-rapped but now free, he is camping and hunting with his ‘big African rifle’ in the Utah wilderness when an urgent, broken-off call from his younger sister Jen spurs him to a rescue mission. His pursuit of Jen’s kidnapper unites him with Allie, a bartender with some knowledge of Jen, in a timely, odd-couple alliance, then with Zeke, a rampant sociopath from Barr’s prison time, as he tracks Lance Alvis, the large-scale crystal meth producer keeping Jen captive.
The storyline is driven by violent encounters with the bad guys, hand-to-hand encounters and gunfights entailing a high body count which Barr wins and survives. Interleaved with these are more ‘interior’ passages in which the reader learns of his turbulent, alienating family history. The hunt climaxes in the Colorado mountains, where the accumulated tensions and conflicts are bloodily resolved. One cathartic outcome is that Barr can finally avow his love for his estranged family, while accepting that he himself is not made for domesticity: ‘The trick was to stay in the moment and accept each moment as it came.’
D. H. Lawrence wrote that ’the essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.’ That seems at least half applicable to Clyde Barr. However, he does have a heart, won’t work for evil masters and views his function as ‘helping’ the weak and unfortunate, a role which entails bringing trouble on himself and leads to spectacular displays of homicidal violence, viscerally described in detail. His word is always his bond, even if he insists on signalling his virtue a little too often. A ‘knight errant’ is, semi-seriously, his model. His violence, applied when necessary against the enemy, contrasts with Zeke’s savage, libidinous outbursts. He also has that appreciation for the wild rural landscape (and the animals he kills for the table) that you find in Hemingway: ‘Baby-blue skies, soft breeze out of the out of the north-west, sweet sage dripping with dew, and wildlife that practically ran from the trail into the frying pan.’
His relations with Allie, begun with the joshing hostility that often betokens sexual attraction, show him growing into a tenderness beyond his ‘protector’ self-image. She is, of course, ‘feisty’, correcting his assumption that she can’t fix a car engine and mocking his bow-drill fire-starting when she can produce a box of matches. The latter is a telling detail, hinting that Barr fetishises his primitive skills beyond their practical value. In the end he just about passes the ‘reconstructed’ test now obligatory for male action heroes.
Yet as a lone vigilante he does kill a lot of people. Since they’re all bad guys who are after him it’s pretty much a matter of ‘it’s the only language they understand’. ‘I pulled the trigger and spun his worthless corpse to the ground’, ‘I continued driving the rifle stock into the man’s skull until it was a caved-in melon’, are typical comments. Though at key moments he appears propelled by an animal rage, these are justified killings compatible with Barr’s moral outlook, and it’s hard for the reader to challenge their logic; at the same time, the concept of defending a nostalgic fantasy of a raw, unpolluted America and an atavistic lifestyle with high-tech weaponry is a contradiction, one that exists widely outside the pages of US fiction, in the heart of the nation.
To that extent, Clyde Barr is a credible mythic hero, physically strong, brave and adept but also thoughtful and ethically concerned, committed to an existence that inevitably deserves some of Lawrence’s epithets. Nothing Short of Dying has a generally pulsing quest/pursuit narrative and a lively cast of outsiders. Unlike in Lansdale’s work, there is little humour, much gravity, sometimes solemnity; the weakest element is a (presumably intended) blurry vagueness on detail, such as where and with whom Barr served as a paid fighter and what the mysterious substance is that motivates Jen’s abduction. More concrete infill, such as is provided for his family background, would allow Clyde Barr to emerge with greater clarity as the product of his own experience rather than a familiar archetype. But there is more of him to come.
Before retirement Dr Basil Ransome-Davies taught American Literature & Film Studies at a number of institutions, finally at Edge Hill University. He is also a prizewinning poet & prose author & a recidivist crime fiction addict. He lives in Lancaster, walks for physical & mental health & visits France & Spain as often as possible.
Erik Storey, Nothing Short of Dying (Simon & Schuster, 2016). 978-1471146848, 309pp., paperback.
BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)