Review: Blacktop Wasteland, by S.A. Cosby
I'm going to say this right off the bat - this is not a book that's for everyone. It's the story of a getaway driver who gets himself involved in a mob war after a failed jewellery store heist. Every other chapter is either a grisly murder, horrific torture, or both (although, refreshingly, no gratuitous sexual violence. How terribly low my standards are...) - and every single one of the main characters, and I do mean every single one, is some stripe of a sociopath. It's like they were all competing to see who could exhibit the least amount of compassion, empathy, decency, and basic respect for the sanctity of human life. The main character was held up as an example of honor among thieves because he only tortures people when it's absolutely necessary as opposed to like, doing it for the fun of it like the villains do! Some of the sequences turned even my stomach, and my idea of a comfort watch is Criminal Minds. So, reader, beware - this is a book you read at your sensibilities' own risk.
Right, having said all of that - my God was this a great book. S.A. Cosby is packing a lot of themes into what is essentially a thriller novel, and the way he handles the overlapping axes of poverty, toxic masculinity, the dangerous romanticization of outlawry, and racism is deftly handled, and you get the message he's putting across without it ever feeling like it's being rammed down your throat. The characterization is rich, despite the fact that - as mentioned above - every single main character in this book is terrible. I also really enjoyed the sense of setting and narrative and pace Cosby brings in, and how he accurately translates the sense of dread that grips Beauregard (our ill-fated getaway driver) throughout the entire novel to our own reading experience. The entire time I was reading, I had this knot in the pit of my stomach because I knew, I knew, that Bug was getting in over his head and things were going to go badly. I kept wanting him to make different decisions, better ones, but at the same time I could fully see and understand that it's not like he had any better options anyway.
And my God, narrative wise, what a magnificently worked thriller. It's guilty of sometimes tipping into too much exposition - I have problems with authors who resort to their characters' monologuing to explain context and background, and Cosby is guilty of doing that a bit too often for my taste - but the action sequences were so gripping my house could have been on fire and I don't think I would have noticed. For all I warned about the torture and the murder, none of it felt gratuitous - it needed to happen for the plot to have proper stakes and momentum, and even though I do wish our main character had had to face some kind of consequences for the fact that his body count is in the double digits after 285 pages, the ambiguity of the ending was so well-worked it made me scream in frustration even as I was going "Well played, Mr Cosby". I stayed up until 1am to finish this book because I just had to find out what happened next.
Overall, I do highly recommend this if you want a thriller you can just race through that does some insightful social commentary - but only if you aren't put out by gore. Cosby has a new thriller out in July that's in the same kind of formula, and I'm quite looking forward to reading that as well.