Reviewed by Philip K. Jason
“Last chance for what?” the eager reader might ask. To make it to the majors? To score big at anything? In this debut novel, it’s this sorry fellow’s last chance to get out from under the debts incurred over a decade or two of minor league hustling and losing. Not talking about sports here, just life. Casey Eubanks has made mistakes – bad choices, really – over and over again. Hey, he may have killed his girlfriend, Orella, or someone else. Or somehow got her killed. He has been on the run.
Like most fumbling criminals, he thinks that he can change his dismal life by staking it all on one more crime for the payoff he needs to survive – even flourish. His supposed good friend, Clyde Point, puts him onto something . . . truly horrible. Clyde is ready to vouch for Casey to the big crime boss who needs someone assassinated. $500 now, $500 later. Death if you don’t come through. What a deal.
This big Memphis operator, a whole-hearted Nazi named (of late) Max Duren, is involved with illegal everything and even a business, garment manufacture, that could be legal but would make less profit if it followed the rules. And now there might be more rules, and even a union shop, to protect the workers who are viciously exploited. There’s a good-looking young Polish woman, Ala Gadomska, who is stirring things up at Bengal Britches. She’s a courageous, fast-talking labor organizer who must be stopped. Such is Casey’s assignment.
Readers follow Casey through an off-the-highways tour of the American South, circa 1960. It’s time for President Kennedy to turn America into Camelot – but that’s not happening along the routes Casey travels: a network of despairing, grimy small towns with their failed businesses and failed history rooted in slavery’s aftermath.
Atkins’ eye for unpleasant physical details and their cultural resonance is penetrating. His prose is tonally perfect. His dialogue is uncanny, accurate, and revealing on more than one level.
This is noir country with grits gone cold; sad, confused Casey is its exemplary figure. His one skill – marksmanship. His fatal flaw – some vestigial sense of right and wrong mixed with guilt that wiggles beneath his fear and greed. When the time comes, he can’t pull the trigger.
Having screwed up his last chance, he gets a last, last chance.
Casey needs to avoid Max Duren and his henchmen. He didn’t fulfill his mission, and he knows what’s in store. However, he has had the good fortune of getting to know two other characters who might at least keep him alive while they contrive ways of bringing Duren to justice and tearing down his corrupt enterprises.
One of these is an inventive and determined bulldog, an investigative reporter named Martin Wolfe. The other is Hardy Beecher, an FBI agent wearing out his career in his near-rogue approach to bringing down Duren and the crime network he helps direct. Casey’s new “friends” try to obtain his help. At first, he flees to reconnect with Orella, but after this episode turns sour he joins up with them.
Casey’s Last Chance works well on many levels, including that of being an effective historical novel focused on the years leading up to Civil Rights legislation and other societal changes of the 1960s. Atkins’ sense of time and place, replete with what would now be a classic Studebaker sitting at the center of his portrait, a portrait saturated with material culture. Cars, driving, and roadside enterprises abound, as Atkins’ plot draws a vivid map of the rural and small-town South. A map folded over many times and showing its age.
The principal characters are gloriously designed and truly memorable. They are hardboiled, softboiled, and scrambled.
I hope Joseph B. Atkins will give us more.
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