As it appears in the New York Journal of Books
Against the kinetic backdrop of a hurricane brewing and a young mother on the run from Louisiana, author Michael Farris Smith cinematically opens his Southern noir novel, Salvage This World, with a literary split screen depicting a phone call Jessie never wanted to make and Wade never wanted to answer. The desperate Jessie is in flight for her life, and the recovering alcoholic Wade never knew how to act like her father.
When Jessie, now in her early twenties, arrives with her young son in a stolen car at her estranged father’s ramshackle house in Pike County, Mississippi, Wade stands on his porch, lights a cigarette, and thinks, “She didn’t even tell you. And he ain’t even a baby anymore. She had a baby and didn’t tell you and now the baby is a boy, and she didn’t even tell you.”
Farris Smith sets the stage for characters wanting to connect despite the mutual, deep-seated resentment at the heart of their estrangement, when Wade dares to ask, “Where is Holt?” and Jessie says, “I can’t believe you said his name.”
Holt is the father of Jessie’s son, and his life has gone from bad to worse. A dozen years older than Jessie, the pair met at the local dairy bar, and although Jessie never asks, she knows the scars on the back of Holt’s neck chart his unlucky childhood.
The current trouble at the center of the story begins with Holt nursing a hangover prior to meeting Jessie. “Three years before, Holt had awakened with his face in the dirt, out behind a cinderblock bar on the outskirts of St. Francisville.” When he sees a group erecting a revival tent in a nearby field, he is intrigued. It is “as if he were not only still drunk but also trapped in a lucid dream of beckoning.”
The woman spearheading the revival is named Elser. Possessed of otherworldly charisma, she drives a hearse and leads the travelling congregation of The Temple of Pain and Glory by preaching us-versus-them sermons for monetary donation throughout an impoverished South so inhospitable it’s now dwindling in population. “No matter the field or parking lot or beaten up town the Temple of Pain and Glory raised its banner.”
As for her lemming-like parishioners, Elser “beat them with the stick of distrust and they cheered their own suffering.” The cynical Holt observes Elser from the back of the tent and knows, “She had them. The small, wrinkled, lightweight monster of a woman had them.”
In it but not of it, for lack of a better place to go, Holt intuits sinister dealings behind the scenes of the Temple of Pain and Glory, and when he witnesses the handoff of a mysterious key between Elser and a dubious character, events take a turn for the worse as curiosity leads Holt to break into Elser’s lodgings to steal them, resulting in his becoming a hunted man, and sweeping Jessie into a life-threatening story.
It is dark and disturbing dealings against a do-or-die background, and Michael Farris Smith keeps the tension off-kilter while unravelling the broken character’s surprising cause-and-effect connections. Weaving theft, murder, and kidnapping all having to do with the key, a menacing sky is sure to unleash a hurricane any minute.
The author’s gift for oblique dialogue is scene stealing. The characters speak cryptically in regional dialect telling of their baggage and downtrodden station, and the bleak settings are commensurate with the tenor of the story, when Wade, unwittingly drawn into Holt’s drama, embarks on a high-stakes mission in the dead of night to parts unknown. It is “A dense and untamed landscape drenched in darkness and rain. Wade drove along narrowed roads and unmarked roads and roads covered in runnels of muddy water and he went down gravel roads and slick roads that ran along overgrown fields and disappeared into thick forests and he searched and searched to find the crossing that would seem familiar to him.”
Farris Smith is in top form at the layered story’s breathtaking climax, masterfully guiding disparate variables from a slow burn to an incendiary ending with suspenseful detail, multi-sensory pacing, and a future open to interpretation.
Salvage This World is specifically set yet transcends regional fiction. It’s a masterly drawn, tightly controlled story about the lengths one will go to safeguard their own.