An unplanned turn down a country road has far-reaching consequences in the latest novel by a Mississippi native who’s already made an impression among the state’s treasury of gifted writers.
“Desperation Road” is the second novel by Michael Farris Smith of Columbus, MS. His first, “Rivers,” earned the 2014 Mississippi Author Award for Fiction from the Mississippi Library Association and was well received nationwide.
The author draws upon his Mississippi roots to set the scene for “Desperation Road.” His childhood was spent moving around south Mississippi while his father preached. The family eventually settled in Pike County and McComb. “I liked being down there around the Mississippi/Louisiana line,” Smith says. “Plenty of interesting people, and I think that area has its own unique personality.”
Now, as he did with “Rivers,” Smith draws upon that uniqueness to pen a story that’s as gritty as a Mississippi gravel road and characters as resilient as anyone who claims the Magnolia State as home. “Desperation Road” takes readers on a journey fueled by revenge, regrets and redemption.
Russell Gaines finally is coming home to McComb after 11 years in the infamous Parchman prison. He’s done his time after a fatal crash following a long night of partying, boozing and cruising back roads. His prison stint – and its accompanying mental and physical scars – isn’t enough for the crash victim’s two brothers. They’re waiting for Russell when he stops off the bus with their own brand of southern justice. With that first beating comes a promise of more to follow.
Roads wandering beneath south Mississippi’s tall trees become Russell’s frequent escape. One turn too many, though, brings him back under police radar when he drives up on a crime scene. One of the town’s deputies has been found shot to death on a rural road. The ex-con quickly ix suspected of knowing more than he’s telling.
A woman named Maben knows what happened. She pulled the trigger. She tells Russell why after rushing at his truck with a gun – and her young child, Annalee. What unfolds is a drama created when unexpected paths cross and lonely souls intersect.
Smith’s taut narrative keeps “Desperation Road” moving at a fast clip. Thanks to descriptive, insightful storytelling, readers are taken for a ride that explores hidden drives and needs. Some might peg the novel as southern gothic, but it’s so much more than that.
The author presents the question, “How does one start over when the past can’t be forgotten – or forgiven?” As Smith shows us, the first step is hard and lonely, but it takes you down a road with an end in sight.
In his own words
Q: What led you to pick up a pen?
A: This is a long story, but I’ll give you the short version. The idea of trying to write didn’t strike me until I was about 29. By then I had bounced around here and there and worked different jobs, but I had also ended up living in Geneva, Switzerland, and then in Paris for a while.
It was during those years abroad that I began to read, mostly because I couldn’t follow the television and I needed something to do while sitting in the park or in the cafes or riding the trains. So I started reading the names anyone would know – Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dickens. Then I began to read Faulkner because I figured he was from Mississippi, so I should give him a try.
It turns out those writers are a pretty good place to start. So as time went on and I ended up back in the United States, something had changed in me, and I decided to give writing a try, not having any idea of what kind of challenge lay ahead.
Q: You’ve received numerous awards and recognitions for your writing. Which means the most, and why?
A: All of the recognitions are wonderful and validating, but I have to say the Mississippi Author Award for Fiction means a little something extra to me. There’s something about being recognized by your home, particularly when you have a home with such a tremendous literary past and present.
Q: “Rivers” as well as “Desperation Road” (and “The Fighter” due in 2018) have Mississippi settings. Why? What is it about the Magnolia State, and which comes first, the locale or the characters? Or are they dependent on each other?
A: I’m not sure what it is about Mississippi. I’m asked about it wherever I go, and I probably give a different answer every time. First of all, the landscape is so diverse. You have the coast, the bayous, the Pine Belt, the hill country, and the Delta. That’s a pretty wide range, and I’m not sure many people outside of Mississippi realize this.
And with each region, the people have their own ways of cooking, dancing, talking, lying, worshipping, and so on. So when I think about a story, the place plays just as big of a role as the characters themselves. “Desperation Road” needed the desolate stretch of I-55 down in south Mississippi. “Rivers” needed the Gulf Coast. “The Fighter” needed the Delta.
The other part of this is Mississippi also has a diverse population, and so I don’t think it matters who you are or where you are from in this state – there are worlds all around you. You just have to look and listen and be accepting of them.
Q: Lonely and wandering roads play a key part in “Desperation Road.” How do those roads influence Russell and Maben? Is their story dependent on a rural, small-town setting?
A: The loneliness and wandering certainly do affect them, and I wanted those back roads to play a meaningful part in the novel. So much happens out there on those dark and empty roads, and both Russell and Maben have been set on their course by what only the stars have seen.
I don’t really think much about what a story may or may not be dependent on, I just find comfort in a place and the characters, try to set it all in motion with the stakes running high, and follow along.
Q: Most people seem to tie together Mississippi and racial tension. Your novel doesn’t focus on that, yet there is diversity with the characters of Consuela and Maben. A deliberate move or happenstance?
A: There have been plenty of novels written about race in Mississippi, and probably plenty more to come. There seems to be no end to them, and it seems very repetitive to me. Yes, racial tensions exist in Mississippi just like they exist everywhere else, but I’m more interested in stories that involve characters who don’t really care what the other looks like. My characters don’t get along, or else it would be a pretty boring story, but those troubles and tensions don’t have anything to do with altering shades of skin. I can’t really say it’s deliberate; I just don’t think about it.