Friday, February 26, 2010

Friday Book Review: Matt Baker's Drag the Darkness Down

Posted By on Fri, Feb 26, 2010 at 11:00 AM

click to enlarge mattbaker_lg.jpg

Right from the beginning, there's something a little off about Odom Shiloh, the narrator of Matt Baker's Drag the Darkness Down (No Record Press, 212 pages).

When he introduces us to himself and his sister, Bridget -- everyone calls her Birdshit -- he talks in an Arkansas twang:

So my sister ran off, out of Frothmouth, with a black boy from around here. She ran away with him to north Louisiana, we think. Thirty-six years old and not married ever a once, not even any kids to boot; she falls for this eighteen-year-old boy who tied for second in the state in total high school rushing yards last season.
But 60 pages later, Shiloh uses the word opprobrium correctly in a sentence.

Clearly, Odom Shiloh isn't a regular hillbilly. He takes some pains, for example, to explain that the race of his sister's boyfriend is not the thing that troubles him about her disappearance. In fact, he says, "through the years we've managed to expel most of them violent combative racist types up north where they belong, to live their segregated lives amidst talk of peaceful reconciliation and Christian harmony."

It's hard to reconcile the yokel dialect in the beginning with

Shiloh's sometimes ornate observations about the people around him, such

as in this digression on the KKK types for which his part of the

country is known:

Okay, once in awhile we hang our dirty

laundry out for some media airtime: let a few white-robed hooligans

swagger out of the forests, lugging their burning crosses behind them

like the ghosts of suicide bombers. They stand out in the pharmacy

parking lots with a megaphone and scream about brimstone. These were the

guys at the back of the high school table blighted with acne scars and

banished from the greener side of the bell curve, and their actions are

like so many compressed "fuck you's" uncorked and sprayed by the

Northern underclass across the iron guts of its subway stations.


something suspicious about Shiloh's tendency to veer between

hick-speak and literary lingo -- and the main source of that suspicion

is author Baker, who might not have fully nailed down his character's


Still, Shiloh carries strong opinions. Moreover, as the

family patriarch -- his father

disappeared awhile back, under mysterious circumstances -- he is at

first the most authoritative voice in Baker's book. And as Shiloh and a

private-investigator friend head north to Kansas City to bring back

Birdshit, the strangeness in the way Shiloh talks starts to make a lot

more sense.

Everything else, meanwhile, gets more confusing. But by then the road trip itself has gathered enough momentum that questions about Shiloh's character take a back seat. Baker lines the highway with plenty of Americana for Shiloh to comment on, and Shiloh's banter with the private investigator, a chain-smoking friend of the family named Blakey Flake, fuels the drive.

It's endearing to see Kansas City play a role in this narrative. Baker romanticizes our town:

We started in the railroad business. The Shiloh's stole railroad tracks, then sold them back to the railroad companies when their trains ran out of track. Kansas City was the second busiest rail port in the country at the time, second to Chicago. Hell, we had Tom Pendergast working for us. He begged us to hand over some jobs that he could give to the people to keep their Greatly Depressed stomachs from making too much of a fuss. Tom worked in our great grandfather's office for awhile, right there at 1908 Main in the yellow brick building. Tom would make a proposal to our great grandfather, saying, "Mr. Shiloh, is this okay with you?" And my great grandfather would say, "Tom, I like you." And that meant there was still some detail that needed to be polished a bit.
He also evokes the suburban evaporation of all that historical identity. Once Shiloh and Blakey arrive, they hit the opening festivities for a documentary filmed by Shiloh's half-brother, Gavin. After the screening, there's a party deep in Johnson County:
The post-premiere shindig is at a sponsor's suburban McMansion. It's way out in the middle of nowhere, the most southern edge of the metropolitan area on 198th St. or some ridiculous white-flight address. The conversation fodder is identical: plumbing and insects.... In the first five minutes several Overland Park locals approach me with one hand stretched for an introductory shake, the other fondling a dozen business cards, ready to dispense.
But don't be offended, Overland Park locals. By this point, Shiloh is not the in-control narrator he purported to be at the beginning of this yarn. After Shiloh arrives back home -- without Birdshit and without Blakey -- Baker proceeds to deliver a climax that's action-packed, grotesque and sadly moving. Finally everything makes sense, in a way that we probably should have seen coming but most likely haven't.

Baker is a Kansas City native who now lives in Little Rock, where he's the associate publisher of The Oxford American, a quarterly "Southern Magazine of Good Writing." Around the Pitch offices, the Oxford American is most appreciated for its annual Southern Music Issue and accompanying CD, which is reliably packed with rarities, oddities and forgotten or never-discovered treasures.

So it's not surprising that, besides writing Drag the Darkness Down, Baker has also created a soundtrack for it on the music blog Largehearted Boy. It's mostly punk, with a little Lucinda Williams -- a perfect complement to Baker's anxious and bittersweet novel.

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