Van Buren County native Jake Hinkson is probably better known as a writer overseas than he is in Arkansas. At the end of the month he’ll attend the Quais du Polar literary festival in Lyon, France, for the launch of the translated version of his first novel “Hell on Church Street.” In Australia, where his novella “Saint Homicide” was published, he’s attracted the attention of fiction fans down under. But this isn’t all that surprising, because his brand of fiction is crime noir. Crime writers often find their most loyal followers in the unlikeliest of places, often continents away.
Born in Little Rock and reared in the Ozarks, Hinkson majored in English and creative writing at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, studying under David Jauss. He worked at Lorenzen & Co. Booksellers, where he’d bump into Charles Portis, Dee Brown and Kevin Brockmeier, then left the state for North Carolina where he earned his master’s in fine arts at UNC-Wilmington under the watchful eyes of Clyde Edgerton and John Jeremiah Sullivan.
All four of Hinkson’s novels are set in Arkansas, and a newly released short story collection “The Deepening Shade” features many characters kicking around Arkansas a stone’s throw away from tragedy. Despite his scattered international readership and the fact that he’s lived a large part of his life outside the state, Hinkson is unquestionably an Arkansas writer. If there was such a thing as a state literary baton, he’d have it and nobody would be able to catch him. He can’t help his Natural State pedigree, and it shows. The Arkansas depicted in his novels is free of stereotypes and caricatures. Instead, he builds his characters and stories around the mythology of this unclassifiable state. His Arkansas abounds with the most unique, eccentric, hilarious and unforgettable characters you’ll ever meet, as well as a smattering of unhinged lone wolves who linger undetected in rural gas station eateries.
“Hell on Church Street,” his first novel, remarkably renders an improbable situation in its first few pages: After the narrator savagely beats a man in Mississippi and flees to Sallisaw, Okla., he attempts to rob someone, who he deems an easy target because of his obese gait and defeated gaze, and then takes off driving with a gun to the fat man’s head; but the fat man, Geoffrey Webb, has absolutely nothing to lose in this life so he refuses the narrator’s demands to pull over and begins to bargain with his kidnapper about what’s going to happen next. Webb turns the tables on the narrator, pitching him on an idea, with payment, that simply requires that the narrator listen to his dreadful life story on the drive to Arkansas. Webb fully believes he’s going to hell. What did he do to deserve hell? For starters, he got involved in the preaching profession because he realized religion was the world’s greatest moneymaking scheme. “It hit me like divine inspiration,” he says. “Religion is the greatest graft ever invented because no one ever loses money claiming to speak for the invisible man in the sky. People already believe in him. They already accept they owe him money, and they think they’ll burn in hell if they don’t pay him. If you can’t make money in the religion business, you need to give up.” We learn, too, that while working as a youth pastor in Little Rock, he fell in love, so to speak, and consummated a relationship with the senior pastor’s underage daughter. This single act, and the resulting collapse of his life, tested the limits of what a human being is capable of when pushed into survival mode — a kind of self-preservation and delusion that is instinctive to all humans no matter how horrific their deeds.
In noir fiction, the brute facts of the world are as black and white as the cinematic origins of the word itself. Right and wrong is decided by power, violence and chance. There’s no middling morality that gets in the way of selfish human action. Reading Hinkson is very much like watching a wildlife documentary in which the brutality of bad luck unfolds in a split second, and there’s nothing right or wrong about it.
In his second novel “The Posthumous Man,” Elliot Stilling narrates, beginning with waking up in a Little Rock hospital after attempting to kill himself — a failed suicide. Upon leaving the hospital, he meets a girl and is quickly absorbed into her life. When she questions the seriousness of his interest in her, he explains his existential plight: “I killed myself yesterday, Felicia. I ended my life. And then, somehow, I woke up this morning in a new life. This one here with you. So I don’t know what else to do. Either I live this life or kill myself again.” Thus, he becomes entangled in an elaborate robbery that, maybe predictably, turns twisted in more ways than one.
Crime novels often begin abruptly, with a character unwittingly dropped into the middle of a fictional universe where personal volition is irrelevant and only survival matters, much like a medieval gladiatorial spectacle. Life presents largely random episodes — not coherent narratives full of causation and significance — and characters must do the best they can with what they’re dealt and with whatever else might be missing. Perhaps one of the most famous examples is James M. Cain’s often quoted first line from “The Postman Always Rings Twice”: “They threw me off the hay truck about noon.” Like the narrator in “The Posthumous Man” who is disappointed to find himself alive, the protagonist of Hinkson’s third novel, an ex-corrections officer who is released from prison, is anxious about how her fateful dice will roll, extinguishing any joy you’d expect she’d feel upon gaining her freedom. She immediately finds herself accepting a mysterious job opportunity, to find a missing young woman, but soon the story and players involved expand to encompass some of the most powerful and corrupt leaders in Arkansas. “Saint Homicide,” a novella, crashes us headfirst into the psychology of Daniel, a convicted murderer, and throws huge helpings of religious conviction — a frequent Hinkson theme — into the ontological and theological mix. We follow along as he obsesses over God’s will and as this preoccupation finally dictates the climatic choice he makes.
Hinkson lives in Chicago, where he and his wife arrived after leaving behind the academic life in New Jersey. Nowadays, he focuses exclusively on his writing. In addition to the upcoming French translations of “Hell on Church Street” and “The Posthumous Man,” he has an essay collection, “The Blind Alley: Exploring Film Noir’s Forgotten Corners,” scheduled for release this spring, and another novel forthcoming later in the year. He also writes about film for publications such as the Los Angles Review of Books, Mental Floss, Mystery Scene and Noir City. He cites Carson McCullers and Flannery O’Connor as major influences, as well as Jim Thompson, best known for his disturbing novel “The Killer Inside Me,” and perhaps the reigning master of the first-person psychopath.
I asked Hinkson recently why he wrote crime fiction, and he responded, “I was attracted to crime novels because of my interest in the religious notions of transgression and ruin, of sin and consequence. I don’t write about criminals. I write about sinners. So, for me, noir didn’t seem like a genre. It just seemed like the best way of exploring the things that interested me.”
Jim Thompson is credited with saying that there is only one plot: Things are not what they seem. This precisely sums up the world of Jake Hinkson’s fiction. He offers characters we are well acquainted with, then slowly sands down the layers of exterior gloss, exposing the unseen frailties in all of us. After all, a lot of us are just an unlucky roll away from losing.