Not too long ago, mentioning the Ozarks meant you’d risk inviting jokes about kissing cousins, bluegrass jamborees, or harmless hillbillies with mountain moonshine and happy naiveté. Donald Harington and others have been writing about hillbillies for decades, but it was Daniel Woodrell in the 1990s who broke the news to the world that the Ozarks is a microcosm of America, although a branch of our society not like any other. Family feuds often went back a hundred years or more, and their isolated landscape created a unique blending of American culture, with much still alive from the days when their founding Irish and Scottish kin first settled the area. Since then, and most especially since the screen version of Woodrell’s 2006 book “Winter’s Bone,” the Ozarks has popped up with increasing frequency in our popular culture. You don’t have to look any further for evidence of that than Netflix’s “Ozark” or the upcoming season of “True Detective,” set in Northwest Arkansas.
Today’s Ozarks has a more sinister allure. The same attributes that once determined its image as a crop of gullible simpletons now colors them as hardened figures with violent disregard and stubborn meanness over the tiniest slight against one’s honor. And, as the Ozarks expands in our collective consciousness, we’re finding more natives comfortably employing the Ozarks as a literal, as well as psychological and cultural, setting for their work; one of the producers of “Ozark,” Bill Dubuque, is from Missouri. Nic Pizzolatto, creator or “True Detective,” lived in Northwest Arkansas as an MFA student; and Little Rock’s Graham Gordy is a co-writer on several episodes.
That brings me to Jarret Middleton’s impressive new novel, “Darkansas.” Middleton lives about as far away as you can get from the Ozarks in the continental United States — Seattle. He grew up in the Northeast U.S and attended college in Canada. So there’s no doubt some readers will begin this book with a skeptical chip on their shoulders. Aside from a few tiny miscues, though — an inbound flight lands in “Fayetteville,” not NWA Regional, and there’s a not-quite-right depiction of traveling by car through Little Rock — Middleton pulls it off. In an overly charitable book reviewing world in which the word “genius” is thrown around like a hot potato (Charles Bukowski said, rightly, that “love” and “genius” are the two most overused words in the English language) — it’s refreshing to read an honest-to-goodness good novel. It’s a book that deserves many readers, one I suspect will be passed around for many years.
“Darkansas” begins with Jordan Bayne, a sometimes honky-tonk singer and sometimes day laborer, traveling from San Antonio home to his Ozarks hamlet near the Arkansas/Missouri border. His brother, Malcolm, is getting married. Jordan isn’t too keen on returning home after a violent episode served as impetus for his departure. He sums it up this way: “Hell, it’s been more or less shit right up until yesterday when I left Texas. I been in the grip of something these past few years. Maybe my whole life, I don’t know. I left here because things were getting out of hand. I was in danger before I left … .”
While poking around in some family photo albums, Bayne begins to learn about the curse that has troubled the family for generations: All sets of brothers are twins, and one of the brothers always has a hand in the death of the father. Flashback chapters depicting various incarnations of this curse are peppered intermittently throughout the novel.
That would seem to set the table for a fairly straightforward tale, but Middleton throws an off-speed literary pitch: Two fantastical creatures that live in the woods are closely observing the Bayne brothers and may, in fact, be manipulating the naked facts and circumstances of their lives to bring about an ominous result. These creatures, portrayed as realistically as the novel’s human beings, are nevertheless ambiguously superhuman. Are they the manifestation of the ultimate evil himself? Or mythological characters existing through faith?
All fiction is fantasy, but if we were to assign “Darkansas” to some subgenre, as academia loves to do, Middleton could accurately be credited with blending horror, literary fiction, Southern fiction and science fiction/fantasy. His creepy, crawly sentences are laden with gothic thicket, and the atmosphere he evokes is mystical. What seems superficially realistic is shaded with a glow of “Mulholland Drive”-style surrealism. In a memorable and skilled novel, Middleton suggests that there are unexplained mysteries out there, and that their presence may play a heavier hand in our daily lives than we’d like to believe. “Darkansas” thrives on that tension and ambiguity, and on the bewilderment involved in figuring out what is fantastical and what isn’t — and questioning the purpose of both in our lives.