by Gabino Iglesias
The most surprising thing about S.A. Cosby’s Blacktop Wasteland, which is marketed as a crime novel, is that crime is the least important element in the book. If it weren’t for the time it takes to write, edit, and sell a novel — and the months it takes to finally see it in print when dealing with a large press — you’d think Cosby plucked every crucial racial topic the past month’s headlines and used them to build a novel. But he did no such thing. Instead, this book is a cry about race that starts somewhere in Appalachia and echoes across the country. There are guns here, sure, but the strongest hits come from melancholy and the constant ache for a better life.
Beauregard “Bug” Montage is a loving father, faithful husband, and honest mechanic, but he has a criminal past and those in the underworld know him as one of the best drivers in the business. He’s been leading a straight life, but everything is crumbling around him. The stack of bills and final notices is huge. His daughter needs money for college. His mother is about to be kicked out of her retirement home. Bug tries to work his way through it, but the shiny new car shop in town has cut his clients in half. That’s why he can’t say no when a former associate offers him a job robbing a jewelry store. Eighty grand for a day’s work. But nothing is ever as easy as it seems, and someone might know who did it, and it’s not the cops.
Cosby understands the psychology of crime, the way that money can turn someone into a criminal. He knows that good people often do bad things for all the right reasons. Bug is a multilayered character who’s haunted by the ghost of his father, who was also a criminal and a driver, and the mix of guilt and pleasure he feels when flying away from the scene of a crime in a souped-up car. Despite that pleasure, he’s done time, so he knows what’s at stake, and the only reason he gets back into the life is because financial pressures push him to it. Crime means keeping his business running, his children fed, his mother safe, and giving his daughter a chance to be better than him by going to college. Prison is scary, but the temptation of giving your children a chance at upward social mobility silences that fear:
He would tell himself later that he had slept on it. That he had mulled over the pros and cons and finally decided the benefits outweighed the risks. All that was true. However, in his heart he knew that when Ariel told him about skipping college, that was the moment he decided to take the job with Ronnie Sessions and hit the jewelry story.
Racial tension is at the core of Blacktop Wasteland. Cosby, a Black man from southeastern Virginia, knows racism well. He understands what it means to be Black in places where things like the use of the Confederate flag (which comes up in the novel) are still being debated today. This knowledge, and the heartfelt way in which Cosby writes about being the other now as well as historically, make Blacktop Wasteland the kind of book that should be part of every conversation about why we need diverse books. When Bug remembers a conversation about race with his father, more than a flashback, what we get is the author talking to us, letting the world know where he stands:
Listen, when you’re black in America you live with the weight of people’s low expectations on your back every day. They can crush you right down to the goddamn ground. Think about it like it’s a race. Everybody else has a head start and you dragging those low expectations behind you. Choices give you freedom from those expectations. Allows you to cut ’em loose. Because that’s what freedom is. Being able to let things go. And nothing is more important than freedom.
This is a gritty, violent story, which makes it a good crime tale, but what matters most here, what pushes Blacktop Wasteland into the realm of important novels, is the way it uses a fictional story to deliver truths and discuss history. This is about stealing diamonds and driving away, but it’s also about family, risking everything for others, and trying to be the father you wish your father had been. Publishing sometimes gets the timing of a book right, and this is the perfect novel to read as we witness the Black Lives Matter movement bring forth important changes. Call shotgun, buckle up, and take a dangerous ride with Cosby, but keep the radio down because he has something to tell you.
Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.