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Nowhere, Arkansas 

John Brandon’s debut novel is slyly engrossing.

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Be warned. John Brandon's “Arkansas” (McSweeney's Rectangulars, $22, cloth) is not your Arkansas. Or any Arkansas rooted in history or geography or reality. In an online interview with identitytheory.com, the first-time novelist said that he likes to write about places he's only visited briefly. “Arkansas is a hard place to pin down,” he said, “so anything seems possible.”

There is, of course, a counter-argument easily made: Arkansas is not hard to pin down. It's a real place, where there are no hills, “cut off” or otherwise, in Union County, where you would never travel through Jonesboro heading north to Memphis, where Pine Bluff could never be described as “craggy.” For Brandon, these details are secondary. His Arkansas is somewhere cast apart and away, a stand-in for nowhere, an indistinct purgatory of a place, where someone could just as easily stay forever as leave tomorrow.

Get past that blurred approach — and rare specifics, like “Little Rock is a rotten maze”— though, and “Arkansas” is a fine read, an existential crime tale, more picaresque than noir, packed with tight prose, plenty of pathos and a plot that roils along.

These are the players: Swin Ruiz, a shoplifting Puerto Rican who pulls his first scam at college before dropping out; Kyle Ribb, an apathetic and orphaned shoplifter, and Ken Hovan, a.k.a. Frog, a small, stout man who rises from selling bootleg tapes to mastermind a shadowy drug ring.

The plot follows Swin and Kyle as they stumble into drug-running, first out of Little Rock, and, not long after, from a neglected state park in south Arkansas, where they work as phony rangers under the direction of Pat Bright. Bright's a real ranger and middle management in the shadowy drug operation, headed by Hovan, known as Frog, but never seen.

Brandon uses the third person voice for Swin and Kyle, but intermittently interrupts their narrative with a second-person history of Frog (“you” are Frog), who goes from roofing and bouncing at clubs, to selling odds and ends, to selling a large amount of PCP, to escaping death by brutally killing a Memphis drug middleman, to Pine Bluff, to Little Rock, to recruiting successors, to semi-retirement, all the way until his narrative dramatically intersects with Swin and Kyle's.

Brandon introduces the lives of virtually all of his characters, major and tangential, in a dry and detached tone, using a lot of quick lists of information that tilt, occasionally, toward the kind of incongruities and ironies that compel reviewers to describe McSweeney's as a purveyor of quirk. The books opens with, “Swin Ruiz was born in Tampa. He spent his childhood flipping through the reference books of a neighbor lady, a former teacher with no family. … He spent time wishing he had a brother, wondering what the point of T-ball was, managing crushes on sitcom actresses, and observing the adults in his neighborhood, whom he pitied.”

Thankfully, Brandon is more than lists. His voice is strong and steady, full of sneaky humor and blithe wit: “Like all small men who can fight, you are thought of as crazy,” he writes of Frog. Arguably the best throwaway line comes from a middleman in the drug trade, in response to a request to tell a higher up something: “All I'm telling is the chicken man two thighs.”

Swin and Kyle — virtually all the book's major characters, for that matter — share a drifter's heart. They make decisions heedlessly and show emotion rarely and not often in proportion to the situation. But much of the book finds them stuck in the banal rhythms of drug-running: long distance, uneventful trips to nowhere towns; days of chopping wood and raking leaves; cooking; shooting the breeze. Gradually, there's a sheltering notion of family to their situation, which expands to include Swin's girlfriend, Joanna. When that's interrupted violently, Brandon's low-key approach feels like a feint. When the climax comes, not with fireworks and action-movie blow-ups, but with quiet drama, it smacks you in the face.

I wonder if Brandon considered that his book would end up in library stacks amidst state histories and picture books, the best designed (always a note of pride from McSweeney's) and most provocative looking of the bunch. I hope that he does, and that it gives him immense pleasure knowing that some dreamy high school kid will get distracted from his book report by this oddball tale.

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