Out there beyond the suburbs and exurbs of big-city sprawl, there’s hard-luck country where the money is scarce, the grind never lets up and your luck can turn lethal in the milliseconds of a rattlesnake strike.
It’s a land of pitted two-lane blacktop, trailer parks, gas n’ go’s, meth labs and biker bars. And lots and lots of churches of the hard gospel holiness kind because life has its violent ups and downs and all you’ve got is the sweet, eternal grace of Jesus. Or a gun.
Author S.A. Cosby knows well this forgotten country and its people and has created a powerful sense of place in his first two award-winning novels, My Darkest Prayer and Blacktop Wasteland. He does it again in his latest tour de force, Razorblade Tears, a novel packed with violent action, indelible characters, dialogue that ranges from the raunchy to the transcendent and the darker truths about ourselves we’d just as soon forget.
Cosby’s intimate knowledge of the Southern stretch of the American Outback is fully displayed through the words and actions of the two protagonists of his latest tale — Ike Randolph and Buddy Lee Jenkins.
Both are ex-cons with a wild, intemperate and violent history. Both are country boys with deep roots and some of the same shared cultural values — a broken faith, a keen sense of family and kinship, a taste for moonshine and almost any food that’s fried and the sure knowledge that hard work alone doesn’t keep you out of the poorhouse.
But those shared values aren’t enough to bridge the bottomless divide that separates them — America’s Original Sin, slavery and the racial hatred and violence that propped up the Peculiar Institution and the suppression and segregation that followed into the present day.
It’s a tall order to ask Ike, who is black, and Buddy Lee, who is white, to shed the assumptions and experiences of the lives they have led. But this is exactly what they need to do to solve the murders of their sons, a same-sex married couple, and extract a measure of Old Testament justice.
They also have to confront the searing guilt they feel about the cruelty and rejection they inflicted on their sons, murdered in a gangland style hit on the streets of Richmond. Too late, both men realize what matters and hurts the most is the very thing they can’t do — bring their sons back to life and love them as they are instead of railing about who they’re sleeping with.
The cops handling this double homicide are going nowhere fast because the sons’ friends don’t trust the cops. Pretty soon, the case drifts toward the twilight zone of being open but not vigorously investigated. That’s when Ike and Buddy Lee decide to take action.
In the hands of a lesser writer, Ike and Buddy Lee’s revenge run would turn into a preachy vehicle about prejudice or a mawkish echo of a buddy movie. But the author is note perfect in bringing Ike and Buddy Lee together in fits and starts. There is no Road to Damascus moment of sudden enlightenment. Instead, the two fathers are bound by their shared mission that leads to a roughly imperfect partnership — flaws and all, with no slack given that hasn’t been earned.
Cosby is also masterful in taking this story into territory others would avoid. But the payoff is both rich and bitterly ironic as Ike and Buddy Lee track down the man who ordered their sons be killed. Without revealing too much, he is a man terrified of being outed for the very choice the two murdered sons so courageously lived.