Monday, July 27, 2015

Black Tar on the Prairie

C.J. Box, Badlands

After small-town paperboy Kyle Westergaard witnesses a one-car rollover accident, he discovers a mysterious packet ejected from the car. Too naive to understand what he’s uncovered, he finds himself unwittingly possessing a massive brick of meth, heroin, and marked bills. He also places himself, his struggling ex-junkie mother, and several bystanders in a Salvadoran cartel’s crosshairs.

Rancher turned novelist C.J. Box ventures outside his well-established Wyoming comfort zone to introduce an entirely new story. This novel travels to fictional Grimstad, North Dakota, modeled on Williston, a controversial oil boomtown. Box embraces hot-button issues, describing a town whose rapid expansion brings attendant crime and dislocation. Grimstad’s blossoming future has made paper millionaires, but cauterized the town’s historic past.

Veteran detective Cassandra “Cassie” Dewell, newly installed as Grimstad PD’s lead investigator, anticipates the opportunity to reinvent herself in a new town. But a gruesome, highly public murder on her first day shoves her immediately into hot water. Rich, ruthless drug merchants have muscled into a town changing so rapidly that every newcomer becomes suspect. A former Norman Rockwell town has become a war zone.

This very ambitious story addresses multiple themes simultaneously. Sheriff Kirkbride immediately details Cassie to investigate… something, he’s less than forthcoming. She immediately discovers an atmosphere of top-down distrust permeates Grimstad. Not just the PD, either; ongoing feuds between newcomers and oldtimers, management and labor, white and brown, make every encounter a political two-step worthy of Congressional elections.

Meanwhile, Kyle’s mother’s current boyfriend, a sterling specimen of meth burnout, devises plans around the recovered drugs. The Westergaards’ landlord has served notice, hoping to garner higher rents from better-paid newcomers, and T-Lock thinks Kyle’s windfall will answer their prayers. But T-Lock is so stoopid, the cartels so ruthless, and his plan so transparent, that he puts himself, Kyle, and all of Grimstad in evil people’s sights.

Cassie’s twin investigations pierce through layers of accumulated detritus in Grimstad’s evolving economy. Mentored by grizzled Sheriff Kirkbride, Cassie discovers a town with a future so vast and all-encompassing that its past has vanished. Money shatters generations-old social webs, leaving little besides resentment and boredom. It has become ideal breeding ground for addiction and abuse.

Box paints a bleak but compassionate tale of nouveau riche corruption in a region formerly very staid and settled. New workers rushing Grimstad wind up living in “man camps,” makeshift lodges and trailer parks about as cultured as Old West gold camps. Newcomers have little interest in Grimstad’s traditions; oldtimers who previously struggled for every dime would rather sell out and leave. There’s lots of money, but little to do.

Rural drug abuse, Box makes clear, doesn't hit communities like Grimstad from nowhere. Illegal narcotics are a nigh-inevitable consequence of money intruding on communities unprepared for its catastrophic side effects. The town has gotten rich from convenient access to petroleum from the Bakken Shale, some of the most valuable crude oil on Earth. Also some of the most inflammable. This matters later.

Box uses fiction to enact concepts I've recently seen described by journalists like Nick Reding and Johann Hari: geographic isolation. A widening gulf between work and pay. Little to do, in weatherbeaten prairie towns, but work and get high. A male-to-female population ratio comparable to prison. Box makes clear something elected leaders miss, that drugs aren’t a moral crime, they’re an economic crime.

For all his social conscience, Box almost misses one point. Throughout the book, Cassie feels awkward being the only woman on an otherwise all-male police force. She instructs another officer to “Call me Cassie”—and from there forward, Box’s narrator only calls her Cassie, while addressing men by their surname. I couldn’t tell if Box made a deliberate choice, or Cassie can’t think of herself by surname, or the men simply don’t respect her enough.

This matters. How much Box respects his female protagonist matters.

I’m willing to forgive plenty, because Box raises several issues—poverty, community, race, history—which he doesn’t yet settle. This book bears several hallmarks of the first in a new series, Box’s second. The troubled heroine, the unresolved quest, the ominous foe whose presence underscores the “monster of the week”... I suspect we’ll see more from Cassie, and questions like these will get fuller treatments.

C.J. Box has previously demonstrated his mystery-writing panache. Here he couples rich storytelling with razor-sharp commentary. Mystery readers will enjoy a good, tautly paced thriller, but prairie dwellers will also get the cold shock of recognition. This isn’t a story; this is our lives.

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