“Blacktop Wasteland” By S.A. Cosby Noir For A New Century

“Blacktop Wasteland” By S.A. Cosby: Noir For A New Century

I’ve been holding off on writing a review of S.A. Cosby’s “Blacktop Wasteland,” despite receiving my review copy months ago. Not because I was waiting for the release date (which is July 14) and not because it isn’t excellent (it is), but because it tackles a question about the crime-fiction genre that I’ve been rolling around in my mind for twenty years. When a book presents you with that kind of existential issue, you need a little time to digest it.

Crime fiction has long concerned itself with the concept of the ‘tough guy.’ Oftentimes, the ‘tough guy’ in question is a cartoon without the worries and doubts of a living and breathing human being (Stark’s Parker or Sallis’s Driver, who pull it off; innumerable books that don’t).

Then you have characters like Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder, who is tough and human at the same time, wrestling with inner and outer weaknesses but still more than capable of cracking a jaw when the situation calls for it.

Last but not least (except perhaps in their own fictional heads), you have noir characters like Eddie in Goodis’s “Shoot the Piano Player,” who aren’t tough at all; if they make it out of the novel’s bleak hellscape with their lives, it’s because circumstances intervened in some crucial way.

There’s a real risk in structuring a novel around such characters—if you do it wrong, even your most pacifistic reader is shouting for a bit of hard-hitting action by page 50—but they tend to be so flawed and human that you can’t help but recognize yourself in them, and empathize with them.

Crime fiction has long concerned itself with the concept of the ‘tough guy.’ Oftentimes, the ‘tough guy’ in question is a cartoon without the worries and doubts of a living and breathing human being…

“Blacktop Wasteland” offers heavy echoes of Sallis and, in some ways, Stark; its central character, Beauregard “Bug” Montage, is a two-legged bulldozer, and you never really fear for his safety, even when he’s in the middle of a robbery and getaway gone spectacularly wrong, or he’s being threatened by a gang of rednecks who are more than happy to rip his head off.

But Cosby also injects Beauregard with a vital dose of humanity that makes him feel very real and flawed, even when he’s pulling off vehicular stunts that stretch the laws of physics.

It’s a harder trick than it seems to pull off, and Cosby does it smoothly; he’s found that knife-edge between tough and human, between caricature and character. Another writer, trying to mush Goodis and Sallis, would probably fail spectacularly.

“Blacktop Wasteland,” with very good reason, has attracted quite a bit of buzz over the few months heading into its release. Cosby is an original voice, taking noir tropes and remixing them in exciting ways. He’s going to make his mark. Other crime-fiction writers who are trying to find the balance for their tough-guy characters, take notes.

*****

To read other essays by Nick Kolakowski on Mystery Tribune, please visit here.

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