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Review: S.A. Cosby’s reissued debut thriller proves he was a master from the start

S.A. Cosby's 2018 debut, 'My Darkest Prayer,' gets a paperback reissue
S.A. Cosby’s 2018 debut, “My Darkest Prayer,” gets a paperback reissue in the wake of the Southern noir novelist’s acclaim.
(Sam Sauter Photography)
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Review

My Darkest Prayer

By S.A. Cosby
Flatiron: 288 pages, $17

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“I handle the bodies,” says Nathan Waymaker. “That’s what I say when people ask me what I do for a living.” These are not only the first words in S.A. Cosby’s newly reissued thriller, “My Darkest Prayer”; they are the first the author ever published. Years before Cosby’s “Blacktop Wasteland” captured critical attention, before “Razorblade Tears” made it to President Obama’s summer reading list, Cosby’s first novel arrived in 2018 to barely a blip. This month, Flatiron Books rectifies that with a paperback re-release.

In the four short years since his debut, Cosby became known as one of the foremost writers of Southern noir, part of a cadre of Black writers who have flavored the genre with smoky barbecue and moonshine. Noir’s gunmetal-gray milieu is a moral universe where both hero and criminals must operate, often a world where the trauma of past conflict remains unresolved. In Cosby’s regional settings, the moral fog is racism — the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. The police are often in service to white supremacy, crime involving Black victims is given low priority and if the perpetrator is white, little will be done.

As Cosby’s first novel opens, Nathan has returned to Queens County, Va., after Marine tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Working at his cousin’s funeral home, he serves multiple roles assisting the bereaved. He had once been a deputy, he reveals, but left the sheriff’s office after it failed to apprehend the driver who killed Nate’s mother and father in a drunken accident.

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Exiled from law enforcement, like many a noir protagonist, Nate must find an alternative route to justice for himself and his community. After the Rev. Esau Watkins dies under mysterious circumstances — rumored to be suicide — two members of his congregation are certain he was murdered; they prevail on Nathan to make inquiries with his former employer.

S.A. Cosby’s “Blacktop Wasteland” stakes out territory in undersung places — and sings too of the complex lives of Black men.

Nate is troubled enough by the sheriff’s non-response that he begins to poke around, whereupon he is almost instantly plunged into a peanut-boil cauldron of trouble. Cosby’s debut reveals a writer already adept at handling the tropes of noir, including the woman with the checkered past who needs the hero’s help. That would be Lisa, the reverend’s daughter, who now makes her living in L.A.’s adult film industry. She hated her father, and as buried truths rise to the surface, she becomes one of many suspects.

Before he became Rev. Esau, the preacher went by “E-Money Watkins,” the owner of a local barbershop who was also a drug dealer, thief and illegal pawnbroker. Then he found religion and founded a congregation. “New Hope was a church where you wasn’t judged on what you had done but on what you was gonna do,” one parishioner tells Nate, explaining how Watkins had attracted many parishioners who had thought themselves irredeemable. But the reverend himself may not have been redeemed. As one former deacon puts it, “I’m sorry that he’s dead, but I bet he went to Hell on a scholarship.”

As Nate plows forward, his investigation kicks up the dirt of his own past. He was the son of a white father and a Black mother. His father’s principled nonviolence was no match for Nate’s bullies, but his mother came to understand what was going on — how their attempt to raise Nate as if the world were “colorblind” was an act of hubris. While her husband believed violence was never the answer, she counseled her son that “sometimes it’s the only viable option.”

Nate takes the lesson to heart; surviving rural Virginia’s continuing regime of de facto segregation requires a willingness to use violence as a tool against his oppressors. In doing so, he becomes a community protector and advocate. But his stance puts him in conflict with his desire to honor the memory of his father, a man he deeply admired. Split between his mother’s embodied knowledge of Blackness and his father’s idealistic white naïveté, Nate’s internal conflict gestures at a more universal struggle to define the masculine self.

More than 20 years after the official end of Northern Ireland’s civil war, conflicts still simmer — and a potent, page-turning genre takes stock.

And Nate’s physicality is emphasized in various ways in “My Darkest Prayer.” He’s tall and large, intimidating to other men, but perceived by women as a “teddy bear,” gentle with those who enter the funeral home in their grief. He’s also a man of appetites — for liquor, food and sex — with which Cosby flavors the novel. In action-packed scenes, Cosby’s choreography reflects his history as a wrestler, his familiarity with the showmanship and brutality of the sport.

These preoccupations serve him superbly in his chosen genre. Noir emerged in the 20th century after masculinity had marched off to world wars and emerged broken. The heroes and antiheroes of the form bore those scars — tough and cynical in their dealings with the world but vulnerable to women and the tantalizing comforts of the domestic. Early iterations of noir were largely white, but with Black writers such as Chester Himes, noir detective fiction expanded to take in questions of race and class among these gendered struggles.

Cosby has in three books emerged as one of the genre’s best living practitioners, testing the ways racism, misogyny and homophobia have distorted men’s views of themselves and asking how they can be made whole. The protagonists in his subsequent novels are further explorations of the themes he approaches so beautifully in this debut — which is just one reason its reissue is a brilliant idea. In a recent interview, writer Alex Segura said that the protagonist’s dilemma is “the truth of noir: you’re pinned in a corner and you have to make the emotional decision and then deal with the repercussions.”

It turns out that teddy bears, when cornered, can quickly turn fierce.

Times Book Prize finalists Rachel Howzell Hall, Ivy Pochoda, S.A. Crosby, Jennifer Hillier and Christopher Bollen talk about race, place and genre.

Berry writes for a number of publications and tweets @BerryFLW.


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