Desperation Road is a story of loss, grief, revenge, and redemption. It is easy to step into the shoes of any character within these pages, to see the story from their perspective and understand their motivations and feelings. Even the unlikable, rage-filled antagonist feels like a real person struggling against himself and his own past. The plot of Desperation Road is not complex in terms of development, but rather its complexity lies in the way that it ties every character together.
Russell is a person that made a bad choice and has been dealing with the consequences ever since. Spending more than a decade in prison, he tells himself that he’s done his time and atoned for his sins. However, it’s very apparent that Russell himself doesn’t believe that. Russell chooses to go up against Larry and Walt time and time again, punishing himself for killing their brother more than a decade ago. Russell believes that if Larry were to kill him, it would finally be the end of it. Russell spends most of the story questioning whether he deserves a second chance, and it isn’t until his path intersects with Maben’s that he finally discovers his last required act of penance.
Maben’s life was irrevocably changed by Russell. After the death of her boyfriend, it was a constant downward spiral; the culmination of her bad luck resulting in the shooting of a police officer in self defense. It is this event that Desperation Road centers around, but it is far from the most important. Maben’s guilt over the death of her boyfriend has instilled a sense of helplessness in her that permeates almost everything that she experiences. Her daughter, Annalee, is the only thing that keeps her going. Of the main characters featured in Desperation Road, Maben has done the least wrong and has been punished the most for it.
Desperation Road is full of moral ambiguities, and Michael Farris Smith allows the reader to make up their own minds about these issues. Should Russell receive more punishment for his crime? Should Maben be punished for shooting the police officer? Should there be an ounce of sympathy for Larry? Did Boyd make the right choice in the end, concealing his knowledge about Maben and Russell? I really enjoy gritty novels with characters and actions that aren’t clearly black or white, and instead fall somewhere in the spectrum of gray. Desperation Road executes this very well.
There is something to be said for Michael Farris Smith’s prose. It is simplistic, and yet it easily evokes so much imagery. There is an aspect that I just can’t quite describe that feels real. Visceral. Almost as if Smith tells us enough, and allows our minds to fill in the blanks. I quite enjoy it. Smith also does an excellent job of conjuring up the setting for the story, allowing the reader to travel along those dark back roads under the great expanse of a clear night sky and feel the warm summer winds of the South.
Desperation Road, for all of it’s depravity and hopelessness, actually concludes on a relatively uplifting note. This is one of the few times I’ve been pleased with a happy ending, so I have no complaints in that regard. There are a few loose strings that didn’t get tied up or explained – such as Caroline and what her purpose in the story was to begin with – but nothing that can’t easily be overlooked. I really enjoyed Desperation Road, and I’ll definitely be reading the rest of Michael Farris Smith’s work.