The South is a dark place full of poor, nasty people in Gone South, Robert McCammon’s strange thriller about a man on the run and a girl on a quest.
Ill with leukemia and down on his luck, Vietnam veteran Dan kills a man in a moment of confusion and finds himself chased (briefly) by police and more seriously by a pair of bounty hunters, a sophisticted but malformed Flint and his new apprentice, Pelvis the Elvis impersonator. At a truck stop Dan meets another piece in the novel’s menagerie of misfits, Arden the girl with a birthmark on her face, who is looking for the legendary Bright Girl, an ageless faith healer somewhere deep, deep down on the bayou, who is supposedly able to perform miracles.
First things first: Gone South is a thriller, not horror or even fantasy. There are some unconventional elements, such as Flint’s twin Clint, but otherwise this is a novel about a chase. Without the oddball characters the novel would be a very conventional suspense novel. But with the characters, it becomes something else.
Unfortunately, the result feels like it’s trying far too hard. The characters, especially Flint and Pelvis, are too strange to be believable, although McCammon should be applauded for the way the two grow during the novel. For some reason, however, almost all the local characters Dan and the duo meet on their journey seem to be criminally insane or otherwise unhinged. Yes, the South has major problems, but this is Deliverance/Southern Comfort level of nonsense we’re talking about, all the time, relentlessly, as if that’s something that exists on a daily basis everywhere south of the Mason-Dixon line.
All this makes the novel feel detached from reality. There’s no immersion, and while the atmosphere might be engaging one moment, it’s always quickly spoiled. There’s also a character called Jupiter Krenshaw, whose name is apparently an amalgam of Jupiter Jones and Pete Crenshaw, 2/3 of the Three Investigators. Arden, I’m assuming, references William Arden, a pseudonym for Dennis Lynds who wrote many of the classic novels. Nice tribute, but all it serves is that it reminds the reader that this is fiction piled on fiction, and the pieces, in the end, will amount to nothing more.
McCammon’s writing is crisp and engaging in the beginning, the events roll with a good pace and there’s a sense of excitement, but the traction peters out towards the end. The main characters do perhaps find something like contentment in the end, although not what they sought for. The reader, however, is left only with a feeling of disappointment.