Sunday, June 08, 2014

Review of Reckoning by Rusty Barnes

Review of Reckoning by Rusty Barnes

By Ralph Pennel

At every turn, it is easy to forget that Reckoning is author Rusty Barnes’s debut novel. From page one, the book is as emotionally complex and engaging as it is suspenseful and artful. A coming of age tale that takes on all the shape and guise of a more sophisticated literary narrative but for short breaths and gasps, the novel succeeds where many coming of age tales fail their less cautionary, more discerning readers. That is, it exposes the human failings of all its characters, both young and old, with the same unapologetic honesty, and it does so against the critical examination of the novel’s rural Appalachian setting, which serves as a lens into the failings of the broader, restrictive patriarchal culture at large.

In the opening scene of the novel, Richard, the main character, who is fourteen, is shooting at woodchucks from the cab of his employer’s truck. However, because of his poor aim—a recurrent theme explored throughout the book—all he manages to accomplish is to rouse the small Appalachian town from its rural slumber into a conflict each one of its members will not soon forget. In the wake of his poor shooting, Lyle, the man by whom Richard’s own humanity will be tested personally and physically, emerges from the underbrush accompanied by a naked woman, Ms. Neary. Ms. Neary, the mother of Richard’s eventual love interest, Katie, is the first naked woman Richard has ever seen, and he is forever changed, made too aware of his own emerging (albeit controversial) masculine identity.

Even before that, though, Barnes draws the reader into novel’s primary theme immediately in the very first line of the book: “The sun was bad” (7). As all “sons” are. Especially the “sons” of Richard’s hometown, where patriarchy and misogyny are not just the predominant modeling behaviors, they are the only ones. Even those characters, who seem to know intuitively that this type of behavior is wrong, can’t bring themselves to fully disengage from it. It is a commentary on the main character’s doomed future, where he will have to discern between what he is to become and what he has already unwittingly allowed himself to become. And, from that point on, from the very first line, Barnes never once takes his foot off the gas.

Through much of the novel, Richard is berated, admonished and regarded with ambivalence by his father until it is evident to his father that Richard is involved with Ms. Neary’s daughter, Katie. It is at this point that Richard’s father, who “Still in his work clothes, looked like he could handle about anything . . . replacing an engine, putting in a toilet, cutting wood, hunting, driving anything with a motor” (97), treats him as an equal. Richard, at this critical moment in the novel is tired from having stayed up late the night before and from having walked home early in the morning. His father admonishes him proudly, and even remorsefully, stating that, “Chasing women will do that to you” (98). Or, in other words, welcome to manhood, you will feel this way the rest of your life. Richard is now part of “the club.” He now knows, according to his father, that it is the only thing that can save him, that love will save him and all men by making him defenseless to it, by taking away what makes him a “good” man. He is powerless against it, but made more powerful by defending his desire to have it. He has discovered the paradox of “manhood,” that it is a “man’s” prerogative to show that he can defend without fail the one thing that threatens his masculinity.

Ultimately, however, it is in stumbling across the body of Misty, who has been left for dead, lying naked and beaten by the side of the brook, that Richard’s life is steered directly toward his truest test and final confrontation. It is eventually revealed that Misty is in the sex industry and in this way somehow linked to Lyle. Richard befriends Misty, who is taken in by Ms. Neary, and it is through this allegiance that Richard becomes a threat to Lyle. This is because Lyle has no interest in treating women well, especially a woman like Misty who, according to Richard’s father is, “going to end up toothless and five times pregnant before she’s thirty” (100). This is an obvious detriment to Lyle’s character and the defining difference between him and a man like Richard’s father. Though both men resent facing their weaknesses, Richard’s father owns up to his, however rudimentarily, whereas Lyle takes it out on that which reveals his weakness.

It is this same allegiance with Misty and Ms. Neary that, for all intents and purposes, costs Richard his job shooting woodchucks for Old Man Thompson and lands him in a fight with Lyle on Richard’s uncle’s property. In this fight, Lyle breaks Richard’s arm in order to keep him “out of his business” because the two (his business and Misty and Ms. Neary) are, from what Richard can tell, one and the same, and he has become irreversibly emotionally invested in the lives of these women, Katie included, to back out. Even after Lyle threatens Richard at the end of the fight stating, “I’ll kill every fucking friend you have. I’ll start with her mother. Katie. Misty” (107), and it is clear that he means this, Richard cannot un-invest.

Richard’s passion is ultimately put to the test, as he slowly sees that the fight he has taken on personally on behalf of his new friends is far larger than himself, and quite possibly unwinnable:

            It was something he should have known. He was fourteen, and it was only now he         realized what that meant. He had all the things—the size, the brains—that men had, but          there was a certain set, the knowledge of the way Lyle and his father behaved, not to          mention the presence of mind and power of even someone as obviously limited as Karl             Nickson. Karl wasn’t smart or anything like it, but his instincts in telling Richard how      bad it would get, way back at the beginning of it all just a few days ago, seemed like the       slow-powered decision of a king. (229)

Richard decides once and for all that he not only has to make this right by defending the honor of his friends, but he has to get back at Lyle personally for breaking his arm and for humiliating him. And, even though Richard is still just a kid, “he deserved to have the chance to get back at Lyle, to make it better in his head. It wasn’t revenge . . . It was everything he’d been taught in school and by his father and by all the men in the world who truly cared about the kind of person he would become” (206). It is this decision, to take matters into his own hands, that leads him to the final showdown at novel’s end and to deciding whether this is a world he can bear to make himself vulnerable for.

Reckoning is a work of considerable literary merit, and it is unequivocally prescient in its tackling of the subjects of patriarchy and misogyny, which have gained hold of the national consciousness in the wake of current events. Furthermore, whether it is a remarkably vivid description, or the way the dialogue strategically reveals the truest natures of the characters, the novel is very artfully crafted and the language is rich and dense. This in combination with the compelling narrative that pulls the reader through page after page, makes it is easy to wish for the novel to continue in order to lengthen our stay in Barnes’s dysfunctional Appalachian town. But this sense of withholding definitely leaves us desiring for more and eager for this author’s next full-length work.

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