A Review of Scott Blackburn’s It Dies With You
By Wiley Reiver
Good crime novels are never really only about a crime. I’ll go further: Great crime novels aren’t even primarily about legal wrongdoing, its motivations and consequences for perpetrators and victims. The story of the impoverished St. Petersburg student with his borrowed axe and hideous ideas is the strongest, or at least the most obvious, example to support my point.
Still, we don’t have to go full Raskolnikov to find compelling evidence. For all their differences in form and preoccupation, writers as varied as Jean-Patrick Manchette and Chester Himes, Dorothy Hughes and Karin Slaughter, James Lee Burke and Jakob Arjouni—to more or less arbitrarily list the first names that occur to me—all put crime narratives in service to, if not bigger questions, then at least vital matters radically distinguishable from simply the who’s and why’s and how’s of their novels’ foundational crimes.
It’s this kind of literary company that Scott Blackburn keeps in his compelling and moving debut novel It Dies With You. To be sure, a reader gets plenty of suspenseful and skillfully shaped crime stuff centered on gun-running and murder. I was quickly and unshakably hooked by the efforts of Hudson Lee Miller, a former pro boxer and unwilling denizen once more of the small North Carolina town of Flint Creek, to discover who’s responsible for the murder of his father. This is a well-paced, action-filled story with strong characterization and enough propulsive plot twists to satisfy anyone who just wants to spend time immersed in suspenseful and exciting murder story. When we dial in exclusively on “the crime stuff” in his novel, I mean, it’s clear that It Dies With You more than succeeds. And if that’s all that makes you pick up this novel, well, God bless and get home safe.
But there’s so much more going on here, and as much as I admire Blackburn’s construction of his murder plot, it’s not principally what makes this such an exceptional novel. Instead, Blackburn has given us an honest, authentic depiction of the transformation of a wounded, angry young man into someone with the capacity to rise above the constrictions of his family history and strangling notions of masculinity.
When the novel opens, Hudson is a part-time bar bouncer trying to pick up the pieces of his life. His boxing career is at the very least halted and likely permanently over after an impulsive resort to violence led to the suspension of his license. Almost 30, he’s single, almost possessionless, and reduced to couch-surfing at a friend’s apartment. While close to his mother, with whom he weathered the consequences of his father Leland’s abandoning them when he was 10, his relationship with Leland is at best brittlely remote. (Hudson’s suspicious and insecure stepmother certainly doesn’t help draw the two men closer to one another.) Hudson’s consumed with hurt and anger at his father, for destroying their family and much else. They’d barely been in touch the last few years, so it’s no surprise that one night Hudson doesn’t pick up when his father calls.
It’s the same night, it turns out, that someone murders Leland in the office of his salvage yard. In the aftermath of his father’s death, Hudson is reminded over and over of the wounds Leland inflicted on him. There’s no mention of Leland that doesn’t evoke painful embittered memories. That’s natural enough, given the deprivations Leland imposed on his son and the mother he’s loyal to, but it does show in vivid emotional terms the self-absorption that years of neglect and paternal absence can cause in a son years on into his adulthood. Seemingly every reference to or thought about his father sparks recollections of resentment, fear, and wounded sadness in Hudson. It’s understandable, given what we learn of Leland, but in a masterful use of dramatic irony, Blackburn shows us how narrow an outlook Hudson is capable of at this point.
Leland’s will leaves the salvage yard to Hudson. For lack of a better alternative, he decides to try to make a go of it, despite the ambivalent place the yard has in his sense of himself and his father. Whereas the yard was once a place in which the little boy Hudson idolized his father, it has now become a place that intimidates and haunts him. Nevertheless, he tries to accept what’s his father bequeathed him. Toward that end, Hudson convinces Leland’s one employee, a cantankerous old man named Charlie Shoaf, to stay on at least for a while.
Hudson and Charlie work hard to both keep the salvage yard afloat and to learn more about the circumstances of Leland’s murder. As things proceed, though, Blackburn slowly reveals shifts in Hudson’s outlook. Whereas before thoughts of his father were filled with embittered memories, we see this son of an angry, paranoid man who would have daily sported a MAGA hat begin to see his father in a new light. There are many instances of this in the novel, but one example suffices as illustration. One night Hudson does a boxing workout to escape his feelings of terror and dislocation. Afterward he collapses on his couch, aware that those feelings patiently await him. But instead of reflexively thinking only about himself, we see something new in Hudson:
As my breath steadied and slowed, I wondered if that was how Dad’s last night alive had been. A dark night of the soul where he faced down some awful reality or wrestled with an insufferable guilt (134).
For the first time, Hudson’s father, a dangerous and damaging man, becomes for his son also a vulnerable and suffering human being. Just as he himself is.
When another body is discovered hidden inside a crushed car at the salvage yard, Hudson and Charlie’s circle expands to include Lucy, the teenaged sister of the victim. Initially wary of one another, since the town police have suggested to Lucy that Leland murdered her brother, they slowly grow in trust and mutual support. This relationship is critical to Hudson’s ongoing transformation as he recognizes they share a gnawing need to pull away the uncertainties shrouding the murders.
Eventually, Hudson, Charlie, and Lucy work out who’s responsible for the killings. They confront the killer and are able to secure the admissions that result in at least a form of justice being done. Some readers might find the mechanics of how the murderer is brought to light a little too pat and a little too speedily presented. But that’s a minor flaw, if it is one, that above all serves to highlight by contrast how expertly Blackburn has built his plot in its entirety.
In addition, while a host of questions are answered by the time we come to the novel’s conclusion, Blackburn rightly resists privileging Hudson with insight into one critical mystery about his father. This is proof of Blackburn’s skill as a writer and wise insight as a person. Even the most important relationships contain unpierceable aspects of unknowing, for however much we can come to understand and accept those who have inflicted the most damage on us. It is true, as Blackburn shows, that generations of violence and deceit might die by one’s healing and regenerating choices. By the end of the novel Hudson is a convincing example of that in how he’s decided to shape his life. But we must nonetheless live on with the absences of what we were denied when younger and what we will never come to know, no matter the years remaining.
Wiley Reiver is from the South Carolina Lowcountry but currently lives in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. He works in university administration. He’s also been a picture framer, college English teacher, ESL instructor in Iraq, racetrack bathroom cleaner, and very bad maker of donuts. He holds an MFA from the University of Southern Maine. His fiction and nonfiction work has appeared under other names in the New York Times, Fried Chicken and Coffee, the Civil War Monitor, and The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature. He’s at work on a New Orleans crime novel. Twitter: @SFWriter3.
Wiley is the Reviews Editor here at Reckon, you can reach him at: [email protected]