In Argo’s (The Courage to Kill, 2013, etc.) novel, set at the dawn of the civil rights movement, an earnest white teenager tries to figure out what kind of man he will become.
Growing up fatherless in a cash-strapped Alabama family is hard enough on 16-year-old Sonny Poe. But when he and a buddy accidentally witness a lurid backwoods lynching, things become decidedly more complex. Suddenly, he’s ducking members of the local Ku Klux Klan as he attempts to carry on more mundane pursuits, such as chasing girls, delivering newspapers and saving for a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. Into Sonny’s hard-pressed life steps Joe Peach, a local dentist with a painful past and a crusading spirit. “Dr. Joe” takes Sonny under his wing, but Sonny’s secret knowledge of backwoods violence plagues him. The budding friendship becomes more fraught when Dr. Joe is assigned a job to weed out local government corruption. Violence, and the threat of violence, continues to dog Sonny as he and Dr. Joe dig deeper into a police-sanctioned scam targeting the oppressed black community. Will Sonny rise to the challenge? Could any teen in his predicament prevail? In a style that’s evocative of S.E. Hinton’s classic works, with a dash of Daniel Woodrell’s Southern grit, Argo successfully creates a profound, multilayered tapestry that’s full of nuance. Sonny’s first-person perspective creates a fragile aura around the unfolding events and makes them wholly unpredictable; although he’s steadfast and true, Sonny is still a teenager, capable of wrecking his buddy’s car. The authentic dialogue is especially effective; each restrained syllable conveys as much as a five-page soliloquy, as when Sonny, after receiving a horrific beating, says that he’s “[g]ood. Been better, but good.”
An engrossing, heartbreakingly real novel of the South.