Review: Blackwood by Michael Farris Smith

Cover of Blackwood by Michael Farris SmithBlackwood by Michael Farris Smith
Little, Brown and Company (March 2020)
304 pages; $27 hardcover; $13.99 e-book
Reviewed by Blu Gilliand

If you’ve been to the South you’ve seen kudzu, the suffocating green vine that will envelop anything that stands still long enough. It fills gullys and blankets hills. It climbs telephone poles and encircles trees. It’s got a deep foothold in the region, and it’s tough. I once saw a car that had plunged nose-first into a kudzu-filled ravine, its taillights the only thing visible through the green webbing — webbing strong enough to catch the car like a net and keep it from hitting the ground.

Were the kudzu to disappear one day, to turn brown and crumble the way other, lesser plants do, there’s no telling what would be revealed. Abandoned pickup trucks. Forgotten general stores and shotgun houses. Animal bones by the millions. And secrets…so many secrets.

There are secrets aplenty in Michael Farris Smith’s new novel Blackwood. These secrets are buried deep; some in the pasts of the characters you’ll meet, and more than a few in the vast fields of kudzu surrounding the quiet little town of Red Bluff, Mississippi. Quiet, that is, until a small family of drifters arrive. These people — a mother, a father, and a son — are never given names, helping us to see them as the town sees them: as people who don’t matter, who aren’t worth knowing, and who we wish would just move on. After an encounter with local law enforcement, the family (or rather, the father) decides to buck the wishes of those who would see them gone. They find a quiet patch to park their car and set up camp, venturing into town to scavenge and beg for basic necessities.

Joining these new arrivals in Red Bluff is a man named Colburn. Unlike the drifters, Colburn has a past here — a past he’s decided he’s tired of running from. Driven by the desire to uncover some truths in his life (not to mention a last-gasp offer of free, prime real estate made by the dying town), he settles in, working on his scrap-metal sculptures and getting friendly with a local bar owner named Celia.

Smith takes his time weaving these various lives together, gently nudging them down the same narrow path toward the answers they seek. Unsurprisingly, no one is truly happy with the answers they find.

Blackwood is wonderfully written, wonderfully tense, and wonderfully bleak. Smith’s prose is clean and precise, able to evoke sadness and fear and dread without needless flourishes. There’s a passage at the end of an early chapter that describes one of the drifters moving restlessly through the town at night, and Smith’s description of his simple mischief is perfectly understated and completely chilling:

He moved into their yards and leaned against their trees. Looked into their windows. Smelled their sheets on the clothesline. Sat on the rockers on their porches. Moved flowerpots from one side of the yard to the other. Opened their car doors and hid their bicycles behind trees. Doing just enough to make them realize someone had been there.

Blackwood isn’t all small town drama and gritty crime, however. There’s more going on than no-good people up to no good. There’s a hint of the supernatural in the mix, something ancient and angry fighting to be heard from deep within the kudzu hills; something dangerous looking for someone dangerous to latch on to. Smith is able to bring this element into the mix in just the right amount, adding to the unease without tipping the scales too far. It’s a delicate juggling act, but Smith pulls it off handily, resulting in a novel that I fully expect to populate plenty of Top Ten lists at the end of the year. Highly recommended.

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