"The Heathens" By: Ace Atkins
Author: Ace Atkins
Publisher: G. P. Putnam’s Sons
Price: $27.00 (Hardback)
Ace Atkins Novel Features Dangerous Road Trip
Eleventh in the Sheriff Quinn Colson series, “The Heathens” is as strong as any.
After a rambunctious childhood in Tibbehah County, Mississippi–somewhere near Oxford—Colson spent several tours as an Army Ranger in the Middle East and returned to become sheriff in his home town, a steaming pile of despair and corruption. Ten years on, he has cleaned the place up quite a lot, sending a number of politicians, human traffickers, drug dealers and so on to the penitentiary.
He’s happily married with stepson and new daughter. Despite navigating the quagmire of poverty, vice and violence daily, Colson manages to hang on to a slightly optimistic view of human potential.
That is: he doesn’t automatically think the worst of people.
This is tested when Gina Byrd disappears.
She’s a lost soul, alcoholic, drug addicted, a woman with the poorest judgment imaginable, and a criminally negligent mother.
Tanya Jane Byrd, TJ, her daughter, 17 years old, has been raising her little brother, 9-year-old John Wesley. When Gina disappears, TJ, her brother and her boyfriend, an African-American teen named Ladarius, flee in a stolen car. Through Instagram, they are soon social media darlings, The Byrd Gang, with zillions of followers.
Atkins does an interesting racial turn here. The town assumes TJ and Gina fought over the black boyfriend, but Colson seems to know that Gina was not a racist, and although no one would mistake Colson for a Wordsworthian romantic, he refuses to believe that a teen-age daughter would slice her mother into little bits, put the bits into barrels with bleach and dump it all in neighboring Parsham County.
Most others disagree, and want them put down like rabid dogs or in a hail of gunfire as in the climax of Bonnie and Clyde.
This tension is reminiscent of “Thelma and Louise.” Colson wants to catch these kids and bring them back quickly before things get much worse.
Reader, they do surely get worse. The Byrds pick up a couple more stays along the way, and the road trip takes us through Memphis, Little Rock and Hot Springs, on to New Orleans and Grand Isle, into deeper trouble, with mounting violence and desperation.
As in all the Colson novels, there is a through-line of perpetual greed and hypocrisy right at home.
A low-life, Chester Pratt, has somehow managed to get a liquor store license after being paroled from prison.
And Johnny Stagg, a cold-hearted creep, paroled from federal prison in Montgomery, has taken over the defunct brothel and strip club The Booby Hatch and transformed it into Frontier Village, with patriotic rides, a bouncy house called The Haunted Gold Mine, and cotton candy and, to his own surprise, it looks as if fake patriotism and fake history may sell better than real vice.
Although never mentioned on promotional materials or flap copy, to me the stars of the novel were the Nix boys, Dusty and Daddy—who is just 15 years older.
Both are under five feet tall and “stunk to high heaven, like old rotten meat and rancid urine.”
They are evil itself, soul-less.
If they were animals, they would be a genetic stew of cottonmouth, jackal, wolverine, Tasmanian devil. But they are in fact sadistic in a fearful human way. Daddy Nix “got caught diddling his niece a few years ago.” The Nixes are child molesters, barn burners, meth runners and killers. They enjoy torturing and make victims into sausage.
Daddy’s “chapped face and dirty beard made him look like some kind of creature that had crawled out from the center of the earth.”
Terrifying as they were, I was sorry to see the last of these two remarkable creations. Just like Satan in “Paradise Lost,” every time these two hit the page they steal the scene.
Don Noble’s newest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors.