C.S. DeWildt’s Love You to a Pulp packs two narratives, tight spirals driving like hammerdrills against the cranium ‘til they breach the dark cavern beneath. You’ll know it when you get there underground with him.
In the first narrative glue-nose dick Neil McGrath sniffs out a mystery involving the pharmacist’s daughter in the Podunk south. In the second, McGrath is raised hard by a degenerate father. Drugs, violence, sex (& incest) propel the present. Booze, violence, sex (& incest) litter the past. The present arc comes off with varying degrees of coherence, owing in part to a protagonist warped by a lifetime of headblows and vapor trails. The past is blackness, full of cobwebs and caves, things too awful for a child to bear:
She whined as the filthy men ravaged her and she watched the boy, stumbling on newly found legs over the bottle-littered stead, looking at the scene periodically only when a severe thrust did bring a shriek from his mother’s lips. She looked away and saw McGrath in the doorway of their shared clapboard, a still silhouette like a graven idol backlit and flickering in the light of a single oil lantern.
Both narratives trade hits, one-two punches, each knocking down the other, chapter by chapter. Together they bring on hangovers, shiners, doses of regret that’ll test the grit of any crime fiction aficionado; together they inspire awe and reflection. More importantly they dignify a genre more often defined by shitty writing and fake-ass tough guys. Love You to a Pulp is the real deal: hard and fast, but also rich with literary merit.
For my taste DeWildt is at his best spinning the dark tale of Neil’s past. Here’s a lad who never stood a chance, no fortunate son, a poor white cracker whose father farms out his wife’s loins to every man in town, just as his father had done before that. Neil’s raised to fight, bare-knuckle style, boy-on-boy fisticuffs for the rowdy, whiskey drinking, wagering joy of the men circled up like dogs baying at the scent of blood to win a few hard rolls of bills. Men who communicate by “Talking like they were nursing a mouth full of coins.”
Neil does lopsided battle against boys older, bigger, and stronger than himself. Sometimes he prevails; sometimes he doesn’t. Either way he takes his blows like a man, earning his father’s only income outside the juicy lovin’ he lets his wife spread in his very own bed. Can’t even afford gas to the fight. “Ain’t got the scratch.”
How does Neil win? “I’m hard. He’s not.”
There’s a danger of hyperbole in drawing loose-lipped comparisons to notable writers. I’ve read he favors Jim Thompson. What I see is writing that rings true, the best of the best, craftsmanship on par with Cormac McCarthy, passages reminiscent of the men riding wild across the dusted fringe, the untamed posses of Blood Meridian. This writing puts its blade through your heart, pointed and sharp, balanced between fine-grained detail and cosmic philosophy:
Neil …Felt the squirrel and the warm radiating death soothed his cold fingers. The tick, a young instar, was slightly swollen behind the squirrel’s ear. Neil plucked it free, a small tag of flesh still in its mouth parts. He rolled it in his fingers before crushing it, slicing it in two between his thumbnail and the hardened bed of his index finger. It bled squirrel blood and fell to the ground, left to new purpose among the miraculous and unseen perpetuates of the cycle.
Neil, the squirrel, the recurrent tic, all parts of the same life force, of which, for now, Neil is master. As for DeWildt, let’s put him there with Thompson: a master of the rural noir.