Cry Father by Benjamin Whitmer
Benjamin Whitmer's Cry Father, his second novel, forcefully shoves crime fiction straight into literary fiction terrain, and while this is not the first case of a genre narrative invading that realm, few authors have done it as quickly and convincingly as Whitmer does here. Surprisingly, the list of this novel's achievements doesn't stop there. The writing combines the best elements of noir with emotional grittiness and a degree of physical violence that wouldn't be out of place in a horror book, but the author brings them together with such unpretentious elegance that the end result can only be described as beautiful.
Patterson Wells makes a living as a tree trimmer in disaster zones across the country. It's a dangerous job, both during and after his shifts, because the individuals who gravitate toward that line of work are usually dangerous men. Patterson has leaned to survive, partly because he doesn't care much for his life. After a misdiagnosis lead to his son's death and the loss destroyed his marriage, Patterson became an empty, hard-drinking, perennially angry version of himself. On a return trip to the Colorado mesa between jobs, the grieving father stops to visit an acquaintance in hopes of a fishing trip, but finds the man in the midst of a meth bender and then finds the man's girlfriend naked and tied in the bathtub. Patterson sets the woman free and moves on, but the good deed will come back to haunt him. Once back home, he befriends Junior, a drug runner with a bad eye who's given to sudden fits of extreme violence. The unlikely cohorts end up in a series of escapades that go from heavy drinking and bar fights to dealing with a Mexican drug cartel and murder, but none of it compares to the turmoil in Patterson's head.
Saying that Cry Father packs a punch would be both an understatement and a bad pun. The narrative relentlessly delivers brutal acts and tremendous violence with a nonchalance that makes them feel too real. The battered bodies and corpses pushed into shallow graves permeate the text, but their brutality pales in comparison to the devastation delivered by the letters Patterson writes to his dead son. The presence of drugs, cartels, guns, and delinquency clearly make this a crime novel, but the emotional angle slowly transforms it into something that defies categorization and ultimately turns the novel into an exploration of a father's inability to overcome the loss of his child.
Despite the cruelty and blood spilling, Cry Father is the kind of carefully constructed narrative that demands slowing down and savoring each line. Whitmer is a superb observer with a knack for detail and metaphor, and that helps him deliver a series of opening paragraphs that demand attention and that, while pertaining to the same vicious universe, celebrate the strange beauty of the geography in which the novel takes place:
CO-159 is about as straight a piece of road as you can find, carving through the flat bottom of the San Luis Valley like it's been dragged into the landscape with a machete. It's the kind of highway that makes it hard not to speed, and when the gray sky's about ten feet off the ground and the sun's streaking bolts of yellow light through pinhole gaps in the firmament and raindrops are just beginning to pock your windshield, it makes nearly impossible not to drink while you're doing it.
As with most noir fiction, alcohol, drugs, fights, threats, and murder are ubiquitous, but Whitmer manages to incorporate them all without making his narrative cliché at any point. The dark poetry of his prose helps, but his successful use of all the elements from the crime formula in a new way also stems from the fact that he understands emotional devastation and how it can become fuel for senseless acts. Patterson does bad things, but ne never comes off as a bad man. Instead, he's a damaged individual whose filters have been removed by pain.
It's almost impossible to measure the damage damaged young men can do to themselves. Spending their nights drinking, doing whatever drugs they can afford, fumbling through the kind of endless and circular conversations only damaged young men can tolerate. Conversations so full of self-pity and self-hatred they can only end by the sudden imposition of physical force. A beer bottle through a window, a kitchen table smashed to pieces on the floor, an unanticipated fistfight. They feed on themselves, they feed on each other.
Harshness has been a very important part of the American literary landscape for decades. From Cormac McCarthy to Daniel Woodrell, extreme violence has been tied to some of the most relevant names in fiction, and Cry Father cements Whitmer's place on the list of great authors who stand out by shining a spotlight on the things that most writers try to avoid.
Cry Father by Benjamin Whitmer