Dry County (2018), by Jake Hinkson

Reverend Richard Weatherford is the well-regarded pastor of a Baptist church in Stock, Arkansas, somewhere north of Little Rock and Conway. Richard is married to Penny, mother of five, insistently “not a feminist” and the nearest to a sympathetic character that Hinkson draws, though in the end she’s as much a Machiavellian as her husband.

Their marriage is a sexless, antiseptic sham, though both partners take church work seriously, and both are extremely conscious of their public roles. Because it’s expected of them, they’re good parents.

It seems Richard had a dalliance some time ago, with a dreamy college dropout named Gary Doane. An affair with a woman would be bad enough, but a homosexual affair, in a conservative small town, is potentially ruinous. Gary now wants to be paid off for his silence—because, ironically, he has a girlfriend, and wants to begin life with her in some other town.

Richard has no idea where to find the money. But he knows he has to, and that he has to do it off the books. It’s an election year. To the bafflement of outsiders, many counties in Arkansas are dry, but there’s a proposal on the ballot to turn Richard’s county wet. Richard shakes down a young proponent of  the wet position, Brian Harten, by claiming he, Richard, will switch his support from dry to wet. That is, if Brian can come up with $30,000.

The shakedown results in a crime which in turn leads to the involvement of the closest thing Stock has to a criminal underclass. And that leads to murder—in the church foyer, the night before Easter.

By this time, the reader has lost all sympathy for Richard, and marvels at his coldbloodedness, his cunning, his tendency to justify his wicked actions with an arid, rationalizing philosophy.

Dry County is not really an Ozarks story, which is not to say that it’s unbelievable. It’s just that Stock’s citizens could be from Nebraska or South Carolina. This was also true of the young losers in Daniel Woodrell’s Tomato Red, set one hundred miles northeast of  Dry County, in Missouri (https://downalongthepiney.com/2018/03/). Either there’s no longer anything to distinguish the Ozarks from other regions, or Hinkson is expressing a sort of contempt for his contemptible characters by placing them in Arkansas.

Not to mention a contempt for Baptist preachers, because Richard is no Arthur Dimmesdale. There’s nothing noble in his fall. He doesn’t even fall. He’s a hypocrite without one redeeming virtue. Hypocrite may be too generous. Richard’s a sociopath.

Just about the only book-length fiction set in the Ozarks and published commercially is crime fiction. You’ve got to wonder whether a Donald Harrington or a Doug Jones could find their way in these days of declining readerships.

Hinkson uses every trick in the book to enhance the readability of his garish tale: a punchy style that’s mostly dialogue; a shifting point of view, but always in first-person; and a trendy, present-tense narration. The story simply zips along, and comes to a clever, rousing finish. And there’s a twist that reminds one of the Woody Allen movie, Crimes and Misdemeanors. If you like noirish crime fiction, Dry County ought to do.

 

 

 

 

 

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