Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Cottonmouths, A Southern Gothic Queer Masterpiece

We all have them. I consider myself ,rather humbly, a connoisseur of crime fiction. I read everything from English drawing room mysteries(even though I still don't really know what a drawing room is) to hard-boiled American noir to intricate Japanese cozy mysteries to the cold and clinical plethora of Norwegian thrillers to....well you get it. But for all my varied bibliography in respect ot what kind and how many books I have read I have to admit I have had a pretty glaring blind spot. 
  I have not read a lot of LGTBQ crime fiction. 
It isn't that I had any type of ridiculous aversion to LGTBQ crime fiction. I honestly wasn't aware of how much was out there and how much I was missing. And since we are being honest here I hadn't really done the work to search it out. I'd read a little over the years. Vermilion by Nathan Aldyne which tells the story of two semi-professional detectives gay bartender Daniel Valentine and unemployed real estate agent Clarissa Lovelace chasing a murderer through the streets of Boston. I'd read a few of the Pharaoh Love novels by George Baxt featuring gay black New York city detective Pharaoh Love. But on the whole my knowledge of a very important part of the crime fiction world was minuscule at best. Both the authors I have mentioned are fine writers and the books they have written are enjoyable and interesting windows into a world that is fascinating when seen through the prism of crime fiction. But if you know me and I feel like by now you know I'm a huge proponent and fan of rural crime fiction. 
  There is a long and tangled history of queer themes and stories in southern literature going back to Suddenly Last Summer by Tennessee Williams , Dress Gray by Lucien Truscott IV ,even some allusions in the work of William Faulkner. 
   Kelly J. Ford has bigger cojones than them all. 
Full disclosure I met Kelly a few months ago at Bouchercon in Dallas. I was lucky enough to be on a panel with her and so I got to see up and close and personal her brilliant and piercing wit and insights. I ordered her book Cottonmouths immediately after the panel was over. 
    By the time I got home from Dallas Cottonmouths was waiting on my doorstep. 
Cottonmouths is many things. A Southern Gothic crime story. A treatise on the reality of rural living in  a country that continually tries to lie to itself about poverty and race and prejudice. A love story.  And queer novel that treats its protagonists as characters not caricatures. 
  Cottonmouths tells the story of Emily Skinner. Emily is like a lot of folks I grew up with in my own small southern town. She saw college as the promised land. A balm that would heal the emotional sores that fester in her soul growing up poor in a town so closed off and  narrow minded it might as well be another country. After flunking out Emily returns home and immediately finds herself swimming against the tide of the expectations of her community while struggling to find out who she is and what she is going to do with her life. 
    Into this existential morasss comes her childhood friend and former crush Jody Monroe. Despite promising herself to keep her distance from Jody time and circumstances force her and Jody together. Jody is the whiskey you know is too strong for you. She's the pecan pie you know is bad for your sugar. She's that ghost pepper that's hot enough to bring tears to you face but leaves that taste behind that you can't seem to forget. We watch helpless as Emily keeps circling around the fire that is Jody. We watch knowing she is going to get burned.
 When Emily discovers a meth lab on Jody's property and finds herself as Jody's de facto live in babysitter the various and disparate threads of her heart begin to unravel. 
     Kelly J. Ford is similar to her book. She is a masterful storyteller, a hilarious raconteur and a fearless woman who refuses to live in any way except truthful to who she is. The writing in Cottonmouths is extraordinary in it's apparent simplicity. The story is fairly straightforward but much like Stevie Ray Vaughn playing guitar what looks simple is infinitely complex. Just like the blues Cottonmouths takes familiar themes of heartbreak, longing and the ever present threat of violence and distills them down until they come out as pure and potent as a mason jar full of corn liquor. Ford adroitly dismantles the hypocrisy that is often the sustenance that feeds the beast that is a small southern town. Where Christianity is a perversion of it's own tenets and  anyone deemed as the "other" is ridiculed and ostracized in the name of Family Values.
    When I closed the cover of Cottonmouths I felt like I had been sitting at the knee of a wise sage in blue jeans with a sassy accent that made me proud to be a southerner because only southerners have the insight and courage to stare at our  rolling hills and cornfields  and see the ugliness that lives there along with the beauty and tell the truth about both.
   Cottonmouths is available on Amazon and where every fine books are sold. Do yourself a favor and pick it up right goddamn now son

1 comment:

Kristopher said...

Well-said, Shawn. That book is definitely one of the overlooked gems of crime fiction. And Kelly is a wonderful person on top of that!