Feb. 18, 2001
Rednecks on the run
In debut novel, Christopher Cook has East Texas pegged
By FRITZ LANHAM
By Christopher Cook.
Otto Penzler Book/Carroll & Graf, $24.95.
You have to love a debut novel that begins with a screed about how Austin has gone to hell in a handbasket.
Austin, state capital, university town. Former counterculture magnet and slacker haven now balling the jack on a fulltilt bender. Sucking wind under the onslaught of money. … The mellow chilled out days mere mythic history. Silicon Gulch now, hightech hysteria and the California unflux, a city overrun by cyberokies on the rebound two generations after the dustbowled western plunge, returning flush, pockets stuffed with plundered gelt.
And so on for several more sentences.
Having gotten this gonzo riff off his chest, Austin-based Christopher Cook settles back to give us a lively, darkly comic, enormously entertaining crime novel about two ex-cons on the run, the young woman they hook up with and the Texas Ranger who pursues them like a force of nature.
You have suspense, gunplay and a couple of Final Reckonings, the essentials of genre fiction. But Robbers is most interesting as a gallery of Texas characters, mostly working-class, uneducated, redneck to one degree or another. And such is Cook’s skill in handling the vernacular of these people that we come to believe in them, even as we observe their doings with a measure of ironic detachment.
The whole sorry crime spree starts over the need for smokes and the lack of a penny.
Ray Bob and Eddie are cruising the streets of Austin in a Caddy convertible, two young guys with nothing to do and no place to go. They met a few days before in a South Dallas bar and “buddied up just that fast, that easy, hardly even talked about it, what drifters do.”
One thing you learn in Robbers: Boys like these never think more than about four hours into the future.
Eddie goes into a convenience store, plunks down $4, which is every cent he has, and asks for Camels. Comes to $4.01, the clerk says. Eddie says whaddya mean, the clerk insists on the copper Lincoln, and tempers flare. Eddie pulls a .22 pistol out of his boot and shoots the clerk stone dead. He takes his cigarettes and leaves the $4 on the counter.
This is the first of a string of convenience-store robberies and clerk-killings the pair commit as they make their way down U.S. 290 to Interstate 10, over to the western edge of Houston, and then down through Sugar Land to the coast and Bolivar Peninsula east of Galveston.
As it turns out, Ray Bob, not Eddie, is the senior partner in this criminal enterprise. He’s the one who murders the store clerks in all the other robberies, to the increasing discomfiture of Eddie, who is not really the violent sort—or even the larcenous sort.
Spawn of a Jasper County clan that’s “pure East Texas redneck, riverbottom poachers and thieves, violent by nature and ignorant by choice,” Ray Bob is a sociopath, a brutal killer motivated by little more than “a need to move, to get going. Nowhere in particular, motion being enough.”
“It was simple cosmology,” the narrator tells us. “Creation having come from nothing, nothing was Ray Bob’s aim.”
Eddie is a different animal, but he has two deficiencies. He’s dumb as a tree stump (but cheerfully garrulous, which improves him as fictional material). And he lets himself fall in with bad company and be influenced. One of the challenges Cook sets for himself is to convince us that Eddie has a good heart despite what the man did in Austin and without making him undergo some implausible conversion experience.
Outside Houston, in the middle of the night, Ray Bob and Eddie pick up a hitchhiking Della, the novel’s most endearing character. Single mother of two young boys (“nervous, thumbsuckers”), Della is a beautician who reads the self-improvement articles in Redbook and Cosmopolitan and likes to tell people she’s a model. OK, sort of a model.
As the novel opens she’s modeling a plan to haul herself and her brood up the socioeconomic ladder and away from that bin labeled “white trash.” This involves riding a stool in the West Houston Holiday Inn atrium bar, in hopes Mister Dreamboat will come along.
Sadly, Mister Dreamboat proves a kinky dude in the bedroom, and Della pokes him in the chest with a knife. Nothing in Redbook prepared her for that, which is why Della is walking down the highway toward her dumpy Sugar Land apartment in the middle of the night.
In a Bolivar Peninsula beach house, romance flowers between Della and Eddie, and the latter decides to give up robbery in favor of his original line of work as a blues guitarist and singer. He gets a gig at a nearby roadhouse. Della is thrilled. Ray Bob, for whom “runnin’ buddies” is a no-divorce proposition, isn’t.
Cook treats the pursued and the pursuer in alternating chapters. The role of hound in the hunt is played by Rule Hooks, Texas Ranger. It’s a measure of Cook’s audacity that he starts with a cliché and by the end of the book gives it life—in part, I think, by making the lawman shrewd and tenacious but not especially likable.
Tall and slender, laconic, gimlet-eyed, the middle-aged Hooks looks a lot like Porter Wagoner, several characters remark. Without the bangles and spangles, of course. The reason he works alone, Hooks freely admits, is that he’s pretty much an SOB.
He has two ex-wives and a college-age daughter who will barely speak to him, and lives out in the country alone with his dog. He uses women, including the sexually gluttonous wife of a fellow officer, then kicks them out the door before sunup. There’s nothing fancy about his police techniques, which involve going over the crime scenes and hitting the road in his Dodge Ram pickup, trying to anticipate where the boys will surface next.
Cook has a great ear for Texas redneck, although the reviewer is hard-pressed to find long stretches of it he can quote in a family newspaper. Be forewarned: If there’s a bad word that’s not in this book, I don’t know what it might be.
But in the boys’ dialogue, Cook captures perfectly the slang, the lame banter, the non sequiturs, the crimes against grammar (“You giving me the redass, pardner,” Eddie tells the ill-fated convenience-store clerk. “This is America. Gimmee them cigarettes.”).
Ray Bob thinks the famous French pirate was named “John the Feet.” And here’s Della’s end of a phone conversation with her sad-sack mother, on whom she has pawned off her kids temporarily (Cook, incidentally, eschews quotation marks, à la Cormac McCarthy).
You’re so mean. How can you say that? I’m not running around having a good time …
Well, it’s not that bad …
I don’t know when …
It is too the truth. If I had a phone I’d give it to you. No I’m not. Why would I be hiding from my own kids?
Are you sure? I can’t imagine Waylon doing that. Both ears? He must’ve got that off the TV …
It’s cause you stopped taking your iron again? How? Cause if you’re that tired, you stopped taking your iron, that’s how [ … ]
I doubt it’s a stroke, Momma. I just do. When you get older you lose muscle tone. Plus your face always drooped some on that side. Yes it did. Of course I’d tell you …
Is that Randy I hear coughing? Did you give him the medicine? Then hold his mouth open and make him swallow. If he bites, just slap him upside the head …
To liven the mix, Cook adds a pair of colorful minor characters, including Harvey Lomax, a crazed, Bible-quoting, gun-toting wrecker driver, husband of one of Ray Bob’s victims and self-proclaimed agent of God’s vengeance, and Bubba Bear, an ex-hippie turned bar owner given to free associating in the old revolutionary dope-smoker lingo.
The Edgar Allan Poe Award nominees for best first novel were announced recently, and Robbers, which was published in December, wasn’t among the five. That may have to do with Cook’s decision to violate one of the major conventions of the genre (to be more specific would give away too much), but I can’t imagine this isn’t one of the five most original, engagingly written debut crime novels of 2000.
Fritz Lanham is the Chronicle’s book editor.