Reviewed by Yasser El-Sayed
Let me begin with a disclaimer – not only is The Forsaken my first Quinn Colson novel, it is in fact the first Ace Atkins book I have ever read. One can argue that a work of literature can and should stand on its own, so why not have it reviewed by someone with an open mind, sans preconceived notions?
It is in this receptive frame of mind that I read The Forsaken. And to Atkins’s credit, the strengths of the characters depicted, along with the integrity of the story line, required no accumulation of preceding context, or complex matrix of connectivity to some earlier moment. In the absence of familiarity with the earlier work, there was no unraveling of theme, character or conflict. Quite simply, the book stood on its own.
Atkins has charted his territory with finesse. His Tibbehah County, Mississippi is William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha, Bobbie Anne Mason’s western Kentucky, or even Albert Camus’s Algiers and Naguib Mhafouz’s Cairo. It is a literature so exquisitely seeded in the fundament of geography and place that its characters emerge as organic and genuine to the landscape. The protagonist Sheriff Quinn Colson would not exist with the same tangible authenticity anywhere else but in the gullies and creeks, the wide expanse of cattle land, the over-heated earth and rolling hills around Jericho, Mississippi (his obligatory image as Army Ranger in Iraq and Afghanistan pales ruefully in comparison).
Atkins’s sense of place is superb – from the wasted spaces of the Bottom Land, to the city of Jericho rising like the phoenix after a tornado’s decimation, into the Hills and the Natchez Trace, each locale inhabited by its own array of loners, drifters, outlaws, bikers, gang-bangers, corrupt officials and just plain old regular folk. Atkins claims this terrain, and does a spectacular job creating an array of characters, all the while managing to merge their stories and their lives across generations and to depict collisions, whether random or premeditated, that result in disastrous consequences for decades.
At its simplest, this is a story of an unsolved rape and murder and the lynching of an innocent man. It is also a tale about a web of lies and deceit, and a trail of greed and corruption that is as impressive in scope as it is fast-paced and deeply engaging. Atkins’s mastery of terrain is matched only by his mastery of the southern dialect, its humor and its irony. The dialogue is crisp and edgy. There are moments, especially when Quinn Coulson is in the company of his lesbian, larger than life Deputy Chief, Lillie Virgil, that the exchanges will make you laugh out loud. The timing is perfect, right on beat, and the dialogue is paced and natural. As in:
. . . A large man in a black leather jacket with a denim vest over it ambled on over to Quinn’s truck. He had a shaved head and a lot of ink on his face.
“You dating anyone lately, Lil?” Quinn said.
“Shut the fuck up.”
“Here comes Mr. Right.”
Or in another scene, with Lillie recounting to Quinn her meeting with a very drunk witness to a past lynching:
“And how’d that go?” Quinn asked.
“Terrible,” Lillie said. “Just god-awful. Am I getting overtime for this shit?”
“What’d he say?”
“Before or after he threw up?”
The stark, gripping dynamism of this novel is tangible and consistent, other than the ending which reads as if rushing too fast to the finish line. Yet within the novel’s broad tapestry of action and conflict, one can trace, in many of the characters, enough meaningful threads of inner pain, shattered psyches and damaged lives to lend a resonant depth to the story. This dimension less so in Quinn Colson. He is a man deeply immersed in a re-election campaign, under a fabricated investigation for murder, and troubled by a family connection to a terrible crime. Through these travails, there is a stoicism about him that feels at times less than believable. His character is too firmly grounded in a fixed portrayal of manhood that leaves the reader having to accept that this is as deep in his own inner world as Quinn Colson can go.
On balance, though, The Forsaken is a great read. I entered the world of Tibbehah County a stranger, and emerged on the other end with a potent, cogent connection to the atmospherics of that hill country. I look forward to a return visit.
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