Add novelist John Brandon to your list of hipster-sanctioned must-reads: His first book, Arkansas, has just been released by the McSweeney's Rectangulars imprint.
The predictably well-designed hardcover tells the story of two disaffected Southern boys who have drifted into a life of crime with the same nonchalance that someone else might take a job as a Subway Sandwich Artist. Mercifully, though, any Bret Easton Ellis comparisons are forestalled by Brandon's skill at sketching characters who are at once morally unmoored and emotionally appealing.
Kyle and Swin are aimless, thuggish types who find themselves living in a state park, masquerading as rangers, and working for a mysterious crime leader known only as Frog. The two fancy themselves outlaws, but it's clear to the reader (if not to the boys) that they are merely bit players in a high-stakes operation—and, worse, that almost from day one, they are botching things. Swin is a self-described intellectual who overestimates himself and underestimates those around him, while the simpler Kyle mistakenly believes that "instinct" can always be trusted to make the right decisions. This tension between head and gut is a constant push and pull in their partnership. ("So what if Kyle was a truer criminal, Swin thought. Kyle was a simpleton. Swin was probably the smartest person for a hundred miles. One of the smartest people in this state.")
The two run drugs, meet women, and commit their first murders, all the while settling into a comfortable routine in the park—at least until Frog realizes just how badly the two are screwing up.
The novel jumps from perspective to perspective—even dabbling in the second person to tell Frog's story—and at times it can be difficult to keep track of a narrative that is constantly slipping in time to provide back story on different characters. Brandon's writing is so sparse it sometimes feels blasé, but the tension between his hard-boiled prose and his characters' appealing naïveté makes the novel work, like if The Outsiders' Sodapop and Ponyboy got into hardcore drugs. Swin and Kyle are kids—albeit kids who might stab your eye out with a plastic fork—and it's hard not to root for them, even as their lives are increasingly overrun by violence and depravity.