When you really love a subgenre, you don’t want to read the same thing over and over again, but you do want to see tweaks and new takes on your cherished tropes. Blacktop Wasteland falls right square in the country noir subgenre. It distinguishes itself from the field not just with execution but with a protagonist who is a wheelman (and all the car chases the choice suggests) and African-American.
Bug is a family man. He has two boys with his wife and an older daughter with another woman. He is close with his cousin and his uncle. He is a businessman. He owns a local auto mechanic shop. He is also a criminal. He made the money to buy his double-wide and start the shop with money made working as a wheelman for crews in Virginia and North Carolina. It’s a life he put behind him until the bills start to pile a little too far up and Ronnie fucking Sessions shows up looking for a wheelman. Sessions is “known for two things: his twenty-three Elvis tattoos, and stealing anything that wasn’t nailed down with titanium fasteners.” Bug knows he’s bad news, but he also knows he needs money fast and bad. It goes about as poorly as expected.
Bug is a great character. He fits directly into a country noir mold as a guy who “dream of living in a double-wide down a dirt lane. At least it has “running water and a roof that didn’t leak like a sieve. A house where everyone had their own room and there wasn’t a slop bucket in the corner.”
Bug is also a hard man and a very competent criminal. Noir fiction is all about “the long drop off the short pier” and “the all-time sure thing that goes bad.” In country noir, there are no piers, “but the people still find a way to fall.” I love the motif, but it can lead to sad sack characters who the passive receptacle to events outside their control. Things will happen outside Bug’s control, but he is not a man who sits easy with the idea of being a product of his environment instead of the other way around.
He is quick, vicious, and effective at dealing out violence. He is also a careful, canny criminal. He isn’t just better than good behind the wheel of a car. He knows the business of robbery. He is a competent, cautious planner. And he has the skills to turn a nondescript car into a getaway vehicle, get away in it, then make it disappear.
(His pride and joy is his father’s Plymouth Duster, but he is smart enough to not use it for a job. Is there a history with his dad? Of course there is; this is country noir.)
Bug’s competence creates his core conflict as a character—a creeping suspicion that wheelman Bug is the real Bug and family man and businessman Bug just an act. When his cousin asks if it feels good prepping for a job, Bug says ‘no’ but is self-aware enough to admit to himself that “It felt better than good. It felt right. It was like he had found a comfortable pair of old shoes that he had thought were lost forever.”
Blacktop Wasteland has everything I ask for from a country noir. A solid plot. Violence. Colorful characters. Family drama. Pulp action sensibilities and literary character beats. I have no real quibbles. But while it rises easily above disposal crime fiction, it never quite reaches the literary heights of a Ron Rash or Daniel Woodrell book. And can a written chase scene really compare with well crafted, expensive movie chase?
4.5 of 5 Stars.