Fans of Pearson’s six wonderful novels, especially of his Carolina trilogy and Cry Me a River (1993), may find his latest disappointing. The prose here is leaner, with little narrative expansiveness and less backslapping geniality.
One reason for the shift in tone is a matter of design: Pearson shifts back and forth between two stories, and only one is in the first person. And that speaker isn’t given to much verbal dexterity; after all, he’s a dull actuary in a Roanoke insurance office who suddenly learns that the biological son he barely knows has turned up dead in New York City. Paul Tatum “sired the boy back in ’73 when people were freer with their ardor,” and has no clue that his trip to identify the body will entangle him in a web of urban drug intrigue, with its sense of “creeping moral desolation.” Meanwhile, Ray Tatum, Paul’s cousin, who’s left behind a marriage and a dead young daughter in Mobile, Alabama, takes a new job as a deputy sheriff not far from his cousin’s home in tiny Hogarth, Virginia, where the local law enforcement mixes Mayberry R.F.D. with its dark underside—say, In The Heat of the Night. Ray falls into an odd investigation of an old crime, a forensic mess that brings him into contact with the tough-as-nails black beauty Kit Carson, a federal agent straight out of Elmore Leonard. While Paul’s adventure exposes him to the ambiguities of urban crime and violence, Ray’s plunges him into contact with the horrors of the Old South.
Pearson can’t resist some comic set pieces worthy of his best fiction: low humor involving backwoods infidelity, trashy drunk couples, and dopey deputies. In New York, less sure of his footing, he goofs on those old standbys: wannabe actresses, doughnut-munching cops, and assorted silent mooks. The resulting hybrid is less than his best, but still ahead of the pack.