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In a groundbreaking crime novel, Black lives matter in the rural South

S.A. Cosby, author of "Blacktop Wasteland."
(S.A. Cosby)

When you ask S.A. Cosby, one of the most exciting crime novelists I’ve read this year, what inspired him to become a writer, his natural storytelling ability quickly becomes apparent. “I grew up in the poorest part of Virginia, so poor, we didn’t have indoor plumbing until I was 15 or 16 years old,” the 46-year old Cosby, who goes by Shawn, began when we spoke recently. “Blacktop Wasteland,” out this week, is his second crime novel set in the rural South. Reading was entertainment for Shawn’s family, so he read what they did — his grandmother’s True Story magazines, his mother’s Harlequin romances. His uncle introduced him to Travis McGhee and Mike Hammer, and an aunt passed along her Stephen King. “At 10 years old, I would read one of King’s novels and for the next two weeks would sleep with a silver butter knife under my pillow because I was terrified of vampires,” Cosby said with a laugh.

Encouraged by his mother to rewrite books whose endings he didn’t like, Cosby began with horror. “I wanted to be the Black Stephen King or the Black Clive Barker.” But after dropping out of college to care for his ailing mom and spending a decade working odd jobs while writing on the side, he found traction in crime fiction, where his high-octane storytelling, realistic characters and complex take of Black masculinity have struck a chord with a growing number of fans.

“Blacktop Wasteland,” Cosby’s first novel with a major publisher, continues to perfect his highly original voice and perspective, dramatizing the complexities and contradictions of rural Black life. Beauregard “Bug” Montage is a man living double in fictional Red Hill County, Va.: upright citizen Beauregard is a family man with an auto repair business. Bug, on the other hand, is a man you don’t want against you in a fight. A man who drag races when he needs cash, burning rubber in a souped-up Duster left to him by his father, Ant, “a ghost without a grave.” Ant was a charmer, a wheelman for local heists who disappeared, leaving his teenage son to go to juvie for a crime he committed to save his father. Bug spends much of the novel trying to outrun the fate preordained by his father — and to protect his own sons against the same. “It’s a character study within the framework of a crime story,” Cosby said of the novel.

Bug is nothing like Cosby, but the tensions in his life are real. “Bug is the man I might have been if I hadn’t made good choices,” he said. “I wouldn’t say I grew up with men of violence. But they were men who were fighting the same internal war as Bug. It’s tough being a Black man — or a Black woman — in the South.”

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The external tensions, meanwhile, stem from prejudice in all directions. “African American people from more metropolitan or urban areas look upon Black people living in the South with a certain disdain,” said the author. “They assume we are more submissive, more compliant with the circumstances we exist in. And so you’ve got Black people looking at you with disdain. You’ve already got white people looking at you like that. There’s a certain mental toughness that it takes to live in the cradle of the Confederacy.”

Book jacket for "Blacktop Wasteland" by S.A. Cosby.
(Flatiron Books/Flatiron Books)

But “Blacktop Wasteland” isn’t a novel of social instruction; it’s an exhilarating heist story, kicked off with a plan to steal diamonds, leading to car chases rivaling some of the best in any medium. Throw in too some intense dark comedy arising from bad decisions made by Bug and his white partners in crime, which readers instinctively know will not bode well for them.

Even while praising Cosby, critics have sometimes pigeonholed him. One writer referred to his “earthy blend of southern-fried crime noir,” a description that sounds reductive and maybe even a little bit racist to my ears. But the affable Cosby just set it aside, preferring the less condescending “rural noir” (a nice inversion of the equally problematic adjective “urban”). This is the territory of James Lee Burke and Ace Atkins, as well as Cosby’s personal influences: Joe R. Lansdale, for his ability to extract humor from the uniqueness of small towns, and Daniel Woodrell, whose “Winter’s Bone” Cosby admires for finding pathos and suspense in the close contact of rural life.

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“When something happens in a small town, most people know who did it,” Cosby said. “We all know who beat up somebody outside the honky tonk, we all know who broke into somebody’s shed and stole their McCulloch chain saw. That’s the nature, the tapestry of a small town — everyone’s connected. From Woodrell, I learned that the attempt to solve a crime in that environment in itself can create tension. It’s like an Alfred Hitchcock film, where suspense comes not from a bomb that kills two people in a café but seeing the bomb under the table, ticking away, and the two characters don’t know it’s there, but you do.”

While drawing on that tradition, Cosby also wants to advance Black characters that are more nuanced than the stereotypes that provide comic relief or serve as “magical Negroes” — a phrase popularized by Spike Lee to describe characters whose only function is, as Cosby puts it, to “offer a beautiful piece of wisdom to help the white character on his or her journey… There are very few strong Black Southern characters that stand on their own two feet and create their own destiny in crime fiction.” By imbuing Beauregard and other characters in his fiction with the ingenuity, heart and steely resilience of the Southern Black men Cosby knows so well, he is building a new brand of Black masculinity that transcends place and genre.

One protagonist who broke the mold for Cosby is Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins, who may live in Los Angeles but is also steeped in the Southern traditions of his native Texas. Like Mosley, Cosby aims for something more universal. “I wanted to make Bug human and fragile in a certain way,” he said, remembering with satisfaction the reaction of a friend who read “Blacktop” and noted that the character has some daddy issues. “I think that’s a normal, human response to life that a lot of Black characters aren’t allowed to have.”

Woods is a book critic, editor of anthologies and author of the Det. Charlotte Justice mysteries.


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