Reviewed by Cameron Williams
When Palmer Cray is found guilty of vehicular manslaughter, he’s sentenced to fifteen years in Sweetwater State Correctional Facility. On his eighteenth birthday, his first day in the joint, Palmer is issued his “Sweetwater Blues,” the denim shirt and trousers that will be his uniform for the extent of his incarceration.
Like “The Hanging Judge” that sentences Palmer to a prison term much harsher and longer than he or his lawyer anticipated, Raymond L. Atkins’s newest and aptly titled novel, Sweetwater Blues, doesn’t pull any punches. Atkins’s novel begins almost as swiftly and as unceremoniously as Palmer is hauled off to the clink, plunging into Palmer’s first-person (and in this instance morphine-addled) perspective; the epistolary style prologue is a journal entry that Palmer writes while confined in a hospital bed where he recovers from the car accident that killed his best friend, Rodney Earwood. Palmer writes in his journal as if he’s talking directly to Rodney. He tells Rodney that the morphine the doctors have given him is “a flat-out bust,” that from his recent experience morphine “does mess you up but it doesn’t really make you high.” He recalls his final memory of Rodney as the two soared down the road in Palmer’s Camaro—only moments before fatally crashing into the Cherokee Oak at the bottom of the hill—Rodney still wearing his graduation cap, “drunk and hollering kick it” while Palmer “caught another gear.” Then Palmer tells Rodney that the police arrested him in his hospital bed, “right in front of Mama.”
The journal entries, which punctuate the entire novel, are for Palmer a form of therapy, as they allow him a space to work through his guilt. Palmer’s journal entries are also an effective narrative device. They provide insight into Palmer’s traumatic experience and reveal the complexities of his tortured psyche. Rodney was killed the instant Palmer’s Camaro made contact with the Cherokee Oak, but upon collision, Palmer was ejected from the vehicle and sent careening through the air, landing fortuitously in a haystack. Palmer is clearly racked with guilt, haunted by the fact that he caused the death of his best friend; he often talks to Rodney, both out loud and through his journal, and eventually begins hearing Rodney (or thinking he hears Rodney) talking to him as well. At the same time, however, he admits that there is a part of him that is happy to have survived.
Palmer is afraid and ashamed of what that survival means to both Rodney’s family and his own. Rodney’s mother and stepfather are nearly destroyed by their son’s death, and Palmer is beside himself that he’s hurt not only his friend but also his friend’s family, particularly Rodney’s mother, with whom Palmer had been very close. Palmer also feels terrible about the position he’s put his own mother in. He knows that she will also carry the burden of his guilt and will too mourn for both her son’s friend’s death and her son’s fate in jail.
Palmer’s chance survival is the first of many examples of what he calls “sloppy luck,” an unusual brand of fortune that “selected members of the Cray family had exhibited for many generations.” Sloppy luck is “difficult to define,” but is best understood as a “terrible happenstance” that proves to one’s “benefit.” Palmer’s sloppy luck continues when he is assigned to Sweetwater State Correctional, the same jail in which his father resides as captain of the guard. Palmer is surprised to learn the role that his father played in securing his stay at Sweetwater. Thanks to his father, Palmer’s cellmate is none other than his ne’er-do-well cousin, David “Cheddar” Cray. Cheddar—a meth dealer/addict whose “teeth had acquired the color and consistency of a wheel of sharp cheese” from a habit of sampling “his own wares”—is a loveable misfit who offers Palmer the guidance and support he needs to get by as an inmate. As a career criminal, Cheddar is a veritable bastion of prison-related wisdom, and he is always willing to give Palmer sound (and often comical) advice on how to navigate life in Sweetwater.
It doesn’t take Palmer long to learn that “Sweetwater Blues” refers to more than just his prison jumpsuit. Palmer, Cheddar, and the other inmates of Sweetwater State Correctional are behind bars because they’ve done something wrong. Now, they are paying the price for their crimes and suffering the “Sweetwater Blues.” The more time Palmer spends locked up in Sweetwater, the more he realizes the cost of his mistake and sinks into sadness. To spend fifteen years in prison means that Palmer won’t know freedom again until his early thirties. With each passing year, he becomes increasingly aware of all the ordinary adolescent things that he—and Rodney—won’t ever get to experience, such as going away to college or celebrating a twenty-first birthday with a drink. What’s more, as Palmer matures, he begins to recognize the true hallmark of the Sweetwater Blues: the anxiety that comes with struggling to find a place for oneself in society as an outsider after serving a prison sentence.
The term “Sweetwater Blues” is also a reflection of the larger Sweetwater, Georgia community. Sweetwater itself is a town marked by death, tragedy, and sadness. In many ways, that’s largely what this novel is about: how individuals and communities deal with loss. As Palmer learns later when he builds an unlikely friendship with Rodney’s mother, our experiences with loss can feel so isolating, yet those experiences are what bind us together in our humanity.
Atkins’s writing is relaxed, comfortable, and always engaging, at times reminiscent of Barry Hannah or Larry Brown. Indeed, Sweetwater Blues easily stands among the works of these writers as a true Southern “Grit Lit” classic. It is a fast and enjoyable read, at once hilarious and heartbreaking, tough yet tender. The characters are eccentric and well drawn, but most of all, they are the kind of characters that we love (despite their many, many faults) because we can see a little bit of ourselves in them. Like Palmer, we are all flawed, complicated, and maybe even susceptible to a little sloppy luck now and again.
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