Tuesday, 31 July 2012

JUST LIKE THAT by Les Edgerton - a review

JUST LIKE THAT by Les Edgerton

For the last couple of years, I've seen Les Edgerton's name crop up in crime writing circles, spoken in awe, a writer of the highest quality. And yet I had never read any of his work - until now.

Les Edgerton’s buddy novel, JUST LIKE THAT, is based on an actual trip he took with an ex-prison cellmate under similar circumstances as protagonist Jake Mayes does in this narrative. The scenes in Pendleton are also based on true experiences he had while incarcerated. Approximately 85% of the novel is taken from real life.

Jake and his pal Bud’s journey begins six months after he is released on parole and is occasioned when his girlfriend Donna dumps him and aborts their child. After an aborted suicide attempt where the Norelco shaver cord he used to hang himself broke, on an impulse—the source of the title; everything in Jake’s life happens “just like that”—he calls up Bud, who lives by the same credo, and the two take off with no particular destination in mind. They’re just going “south”--somewhere where it’s warm. An hour before they leave, Jake on another impulse, holds up a convenience store to get some traveling money.

Ultimately, they end up in New Orleans and then Lake Charles, Louisiana and from there, back to Indiana.

Along the way are many “watercooler” moments, such as when an inmate sinks a meat cleaver into another inmate’s blue-clad stomach, a physical encounter with two rednecks in Kentucky where Bud shoots one of the men, the bullet bouncing harmlessly off the man’s thick skull, Jake’s ongoing romance with Donna, the funeral of Jake’s father which he attends with a whore, multiple burglaries, armed robberies, a brief affair with a black woman, and an adventure with a drunk Santa Claus. Near the end Jake takes another fall when he is caught burglarizing a bar back in Ft. Wayne, Indiana and gets shot in the leg and is returned to Pendleton where he kills the inmate he’d had a nasty encounter during his first stay in prison. In the process, Jake’s philosophy of life undergoes a sea change and he comes up with this:

Portions of JUST LIKE THAT have previously appeared as short stories in the literary magazines High Plains Literary Review, Murdaland, and Flatmancrooked. The story that appeared in High Plains was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and was selected for inclusion in Houghton-Mifflin’s “Best American Mystery Stories, 2001.”

As a note of possible interest, Cathy Johns, the P.R. Director and Assistant Warden of The Farm (the infamous Louisiana state prison at Angola) read this novel and told Edgerton that he'd captured the true spirit of the criminal mind better than anything she'd ever read.

JUST LIKE THAT begins with a lengthy foreward in which we learn the prison stories/road movie book we are about to read is '80-85%' true. With the brilliant edginess of Edgerton's writing - even in the foreward - I was left in no doubt I would be in for quite a ride. And not all of it comfortable.

JLT begins with the central character, Jake Mayes, in prison. Eating beans:

We were having beans this meal. That's not news - when we don't have beans, that's news. My main concern was not biting down on a rock. There are rocks all the time in the beans. If I looked around, I would see everyone else eating the same way I was. Carefully, so as not to bit down on a rock. As if I cared.

This single paragraph is a brilliant example of Les Edgerton's writing. The attention to detail - details that can only come from someone who knows - an atmosphere created through these details, and the character of Jake Mayes laid out before us like a corpse. The fact Edgerton does all this within the first paragraph indicates a writer that knows exactly what he is doing.

As we follow Jake through parole and onto the streets, we have a hope he will turn his life around, make something of it. But Jake, Jake is a man with a broken heart that is falling to pieces and hardening by the day. Next thing we know, Jake is phoning up his pal Bud, and a nihilistic road trip ensues in which the two men lurch from one town to the next, beer and women, and enough money for both, their only object. Eventually, Jake and Bud go their separate ways, and Jake ends up back in 'the joint'.

Indeed, JLT is much more of a prison story than a road trip.

But therein lies its strength.

The prison sections are astounding in their detail, their atmosphere. And, in places, truly frightening. There are two particular scenes in the book that I read with my eyes popping out.

As Jake settles down to a life of prison, writing years of his life off, preferring the company of the friends he is banged up with to a life on the outside, I became genuinely saddened, such is the power of Edgerton's prose. But through the cold-hearted violence and the bravado and the dripping tension of prison life, I kept remembering that broken heart. And through it all, it kept on beating.

They say there is nothing more dangerous than a man with nothing to lose. Les Edgerton writes as a writer with nothing to lose. If you can imagine Mark Twain pumped with amphetamines, brandishing a straight razor and a big grin - you sort of get close.

JUST LIKE THAT is an astonishing book.

JUST LIKE THAT is available in paperback and Kindle forms from the US here

and in paperback and Kindle forms from the UK here

Les Edgerton's website is here, and well worth checking out.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for your kind words on my novel, Ian! It means so much to me when a writer I myself admire sees the same kind of value in my own work as I do yours.

    Blue skies,