A debut novel with red herrings steeped in mind-numbing heat and bone-chilling darkness deep in the modern American prairie.
Prisons are the major industry in Leavenworth, Kansas, and business is booming in the summer of 1988—even if maintaining those prisons apparently means the city can’t afford to build a new public library. Meanwhile, there’s an escaped prisoner on the loose—a fact that two young boys, sons of a local policeman, are trying hard to ignore as they live from one hot day to the next, swimming and diving in the pool at their divorced mom’s apartment complex. Yet the brothers invent a name for the escapee, “The Stranger,” and he becomes part of the fantasy world they invent to escape a dreary reality comprising a father who's less than sure of his own law enforcing capabilities either at home or on the streets and a mother haplessly engaged in a romance with a sleazy ex-con who works at the same golf course pro shop she does. Prominent among the other bigger people in the brothers’ lives is Chris, who one days materializes at the pool; for all his amiable coaching of the boys’ diving techniques, he seems as enigmatic to the younger brother as he is engaging to the older one. As the summer drags on (and as, intermittently, the novel does), the humid atmosphere around the brothers’ world becomes freighted with ominous portents: the search for “The Stranger” stalls, the threat of tornadoes increases, both parents become more depressed, and the older brother becomes more violent and temperamental, imperiling the strong bond he has with his younger sibling. This first novel represents an expansion of a short story by Smith (who grew up in Leavenworth), and at times, it seems to strain from the added development. But Smith’s spare, taut prose, along with the empathy he brings even to characters neither you nor the boys like much, compensates for such lapses, as does a flair for raw, gut-clutching menace shared by masters of rural American gothic. Smith’s not in their company yet. But, in time, he could be.
Through every sad, ugly twist of this story, you feel yourself wanting to turn away, but you can’t.