Want to drag the darkness down? Go on a road trip with Odom Shiloh in his Honda of the year 1997.
This 40-year-old man from Frothmouth, Arkansas, has more than his share of troubles. Odom is unemployable, his second marriage is about to go bust, and his talented but neurotic sister, Birdshit, has gone missing. Oh, and he’s also on the run from the authorities after ramming his car into a famous French cyclist in downtown Memphis.
With all this drama going on, why not hit the road? Determined to track down his little sister, Odom enlists help from his private investigator friend, Blakey Flake. The pair climbs into Odom’s vintage Honda and travels the highways of Arkansas and Missouri in search of Birdshit, who Odom believes has run off with a four-star high school football recruit. Along the way, Odom mostly listens as the chain-smoking Blakey ruminates on topics ranging from his favorite French Impressionist painters to the theory that Oprah Winfrey is, in fact, ruining our way of life. As is the case with most memorable road novels (Charles Portis’s The Dog of the South comes to mind), it is the journey – not the destination – that drives Drag the Darkness Down.
This debut novel by Kansas City author Matt Baker was published in 2009, but I only recently became familiar with it. The book is an impressive start to what looks to be a strong fiction career for Mr. Baker. His characters in Drag the Darkness Down are cold, conniving and perennially self-absorbed. The way they interact with each other while pursuing their individual agendas is often hilarious, though Baker’s characters seldom see it that way.
No one in Drag the Darkness Down is satisfied with his or her current state: Blakey wants to be a stand-up comic, Birdshit wants to write poetry and escape small-town life, Odom isn’t sure what he wants, other than to evade the law, rescue his sister, and stick a fork in another failed marriage. We see the action through Odom’s eyes, but can we trust his view of reality? The meandering banter between Odom and the screwball detective Blakey as they follow the trail to Birdshit fuels the first half of the novel. After a while, Blakey’s outrageous pronouncements and dubious theories start making sense, and Odom’s internal broodings become more frightening. Which one of these two guys in the Honda is the crazy one? Is it both of them? Is it too late to bail on this road trip and catch a Greyhound back to Little Rock?
Finding humor and building intrigue in characters who are as forlorn and shiftless as Odom Shiloh is the writing equivalent of a magic trick, but I believe Matt Baker has pulled it off. Drag the Darkness Down is truly dark, and it is unlikely that this detective story is going to end happily, but we can at least sit back and enjoy the bumpy, tumultuous ride.