A superb crime debut
A husband, a father, a son, a business owner…And the best getaway driver east of the Mississippi.
Beauregard “Bug” Montage is an honest mechanic, a loving husband, and a hard-working dad. Bug knows there’s no future in the man he used to be: known from the hills of North Carolina to the beaches of Florida as the best wheelman on the East Coast.
He thought he’d left all that behind him, but as his carefully built new life begins to crumble, he finds himself drawn inexorably back into a world of blood and bullets. When a smooth-talking former associate comes calling with a can’t-miss jewelry store heist, Bug feels he has no choice but to get back in the driver’s seat. And Bug is at his best where the scent of gasoline mixes with the smell of fear.
Haunted by the ghost of who he used to be and the father who disappeared when he needed him most, Bug must find a way to navigate this blacktop wasteland… or die trying.
Cosby’s debut, Blacktop Wasteland has been getting a lot of positive attention since it was published. A perfect blend of heist story and character study, I’m very happy to report that this buzz is entirely justified. This is an excellent novel, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Beauregard is an excellent protagonist. He’s calm, supremely gifted. He’s eager to make a legitimate living, but life and America keep throwing obstacles in his way — whether in the form of financial hardship, racist antagonists who muscle out his position, and more. He’s also struggling to keep in check his impulse to do what he does better than anyone: drive. Specifically, operate as a getaway driver.
The secret ain’t about the motor. That’s part of it, yeah, but that ain’t the main thing. The real thing, the thing most people don’t want to talk about, is how you drive. If you drive like you scared, you gonna lose. If you drive like you don’t want to have to rebuild the whole engine, you gonna lose. You gotta drive like don’t nothing else matter except getting to that line. Drive like you fucking stole it.
Ignoring his concerns about his contacts, Beauregard is drawn back into the life for one more job. He’s working with people who are less serious than he would like, and is forced to exert a measure of discipline and control over the situation. Naturally, something is off, and things start to go rather wrong.
While there is certainly a heist at the core of the novel’s plot, I felt that the characters — especially Beauregard — were the real heart of the book. Yes, there’s an exciting getaway chase, some very good planning and tense post-crime fallout scenes and moments. But the personal relationships are, for me, where the novel really shined. Whether Cosby was writing about Beauregard’s relationship with his father; his best friend and business partner, Kelvin; the mother of his sons, Kia; or his daughter, the author does a fantastic job of showing us all of the various sides of Beauregard. The secondary characters are equally well-drawn, even those who appear in only one scene.
Cosby infuses his novel with an excellent sense of place — physical, racial, and economic. His description is often poetic, but always spare, giving the reader just enough to form a clear picture of the scene and mood.
Progress had left this part of town behind. It was abandoned just like the store. A blacktop wasteland haunted by the phantoms of the past.
We learn so much about Beauregard through his relationships and interactions with his family. The protagonist’s reflections on race in America (particularly in the South), the lingering and considerable impact of his relationship with his father… all of these are expertly woven throughout the narrative and inform much of his behaviour. For example, one of his goals is to give his daughter every chance to get out, to do better than him and not have to settle for what she sees in their economically depressed town.
“You see this grease on my hands? I’ve washed them five times today and it still won’t come all the way off. Don’t get me wrong, there is no shame working with your hands for a living. But for me, it was the only choice I had. It don’t have to be that way for you. You wanna go to Auto and Diesel school and get a job working on race cars, that’s fine. You wanna go to VCU, take art classes and be a graphic designer, hey that’s fine too. You wanna be a lawyer or a doctor or a writer, ain’t nothing wrong with that either. Education gives you those choices.”
Meanwhile, Beauregard is also trying to protect his sons, Javon and Darren, from the various and many obstacles that exist when you are a black man in America. I won’t say too much, but there is a devastating scene later in the book that landed like a heavy punch to the gut. It’s superbly written, wrenching, and loses none of its power for being depressingly familiar.
“Listen, when you’re a black man in America you live with the weight of people’s low expectations on your back every day. They can crush you right down to the goddamn ground. Think about it like it’s a race. Everybody else has a head start and you dragging those low expectations behind you. Choices give you freedom from those expectations. Allows you to cut ’em loose. Because that’s what freedom is. Being able to let things go. And nothing is more important than freedom. Nothing. You hear me, boy?” Beauregard said.
Blacktop Wasteland is a superb novel that offers not only an excellent crime/heist story, but also engaging and passionate reflections of life in America. A must read, in my opinion, and one of my favourite reads of the year. I really can’t wait to read what Cosby writes next.
Very highly recommended.
S.A. Cosby’s Blacktop Wasteland is out now, published by Flatiron Books in North America and Headline in the UK.