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Gone South

Robert R. McCammon

Pocket Books

US Hardcover

ISBN 0-671-74306-6

341 pages; $22.00

Date Reviewed: 09-15-1992

Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2002



Horror, Mystery

It's tough to get more than thrills out of a thriller. A writer who strives for subtlety can easily suffocate suspense, derail a decent plot or end up with all atmosphere and no action. In "Gone South", horror writer Robert R. McCammon's feel for modern South saves the characters but is ultimately unable to rescue the plot. There's plenty of tension, but it's just not as fascinating as the exaggerated but believable freak show of screwed-up people who pursue one another through a grungy, economically-depressed Southern psycho-scape.

The novel begins with an effective scene set in a parking lot where Dan Lambert, a Vietnam veteran suffering from Agent Orange syndrome, is waiting for day work. "Lining the commercial carnival of 70th Street was a score of barbecue restaurants, and it was from their kitchen chimneys that this odor of burned flesh rose into the scalded sky...Dan felt the brutal heat sapping him. He had to go sit in his truck for a while to get out of the sun. A couple of younger bucks had brought baseball gloves and a ball, and they peeled off their wet shirts and pitched some as Dan and the older men watched. The guy with the hand-lettered sign around his neck was sitting on the curb..." McCammon hits all the right notes of financial despair to believably propel his character into the self-defense murder of the banker who is about to repossess his pickup truck. And he plays the plot to perfection as Dan flees the for the Louisiana bayous. When the bank offers a $15,000 reward for Lambert's return, McCammon introduces Flint Murtagh and Pelvis Eisley, the bounty hunters whose characters will provide the real thrills in this novel.

Murtaugh is a freak show refugee who sports an extra arm, courtesy of Clint, his still attached, undeveloped, Siamese-twin brother. He's offered the chance to pursue Lambert, provided he is willing to take on an apprentice, Pelvis Eisley, a failed Elvis imitator, bloated and balding underneath a cheap toupee, who carries around a small dog he calls Mama. "Flint shook his head. The walls seemed to be closing in on him, and on all sides there was an Elvis. The dog was yapping, the noise was splitting his skull. The awful stench of buttermilk wafted in the air. Something close to panic grabbed Flint around the throat. He whirled towards the door, wrenched the latch back and leaped out of the foul, Elvisized room. As he ran along the breezeway toward the office with Clint twitching under his shirt, he heard the nightmare calling behind him. 'Mr. Murtagh, sir? You all right?'" McCammon's real score here is that slowly and surely, he makes these two Southern grotesques, believable, complex, then, most amazing of all, likable.

As they pursue Lambert towards the bayous, he makes an unfortunate stop at a vividly realized hotel run by hen-pecked husbandHarmon DeCayne and Hannah, his bile-spewing wife. Before you can say "Flannery O'Conner", Lambert's accused of another murder. At his last stop before the entering the trackless swamp, Lambert meets a companion worthy of the rest of the characters -- Arden Halliday, who might be the typical "pick-up heroine" so common in thrillers, but for the right side of her face, which is "covered by a huge, purplish-red birthmark that began in her hair, and continued all the way down onto her throat." Arden demands to join Lambert, since she's sure that somewhere within the bayous resides the Bright Girl, an ageless healer who will remove her birthmark.

As these grotesques scuttle into the swamp, McCammon manages to keep the perfect balance between the pathetic, the ugly, the deluded and the charming, culminating in a gritty sequence set on an oil drilling platform. Unfortunately, the plot has its demands, too, and McCammon's search for the redemption of all these characters takes a TV-detective style detour before reaching the more effective and sentimental conclusion. Still, you couldn't ask for more entertaining company than the motley quartet of main characters that McCammon creates here. It's enough to make the reader fervently hope that McCammon, having gone south, will stay there for his next novel.