Author Michael Farris Smith came into my world not by way of the written word, but via audio. The debut episode of The Daring, a Mississippi-based podcast about creative life in our state, features Smith and after just a few minutes of listening, I knew I’d found a new favorite. He shares a sense of humor and humility about his experience as a writer, and illustrates what arduous and solitary lives authors often lead. He also tells some cool stories about Barry Hannah, which is sure to hook any Mississippi lit lover.
I went to Lemuria to buy his latest book, The Fighter, which will be highlighted in Saturday’s “Southern Fiction and Redemption” panel at the 2018 Mississippi Book Festival. I left Lemuria with Desperation Road, his 2017 novel available now in paperback. I’ve since passed the book along to a colleague here at Mississippi Today, and incessantly talked about Desperation Road to anyone who will listen.
I almost exclusively read Mississippi authors, and it is incredibly refreshing to read a novel set in southwest Mississippi. No love lost for the rolling hills of the north, the alluvial plains of the Delta or the brackish Gulf, but there is a raw and undertold story where Magnolia meets McComb, and Smith does it so seamlessly that one might not realize it hasn’t been done before. He weaves violence with compassion, unraveling the life of protagonist Russell Gains at a pace that keeps your blood pumping and your heart hurting.
Miles of traveling with Russell up county roads and down city streets introduces us to an adolescence cut short by drunk driving and a handful of characters that demonstrate Faulkner’s quote that the past is never dead; it’s not even past. From the star-crossed, nomadic Maben to the self-destructive, enraged Larry, Smith creates empathy for the most unlikely characters and demonstrates the long tail of love and friendship forged in small town Mississippi. The quiet complexity of loss and innocence are sweetly foiled in the characters of Russell’s aging father and Maben’s young daughter, who quickly bond over cane poles and Coca-Colas.
Stressful at times with brutally depicted scenes, close calls and high stakes, Smith comes out of the gate with plot twists and unexpected circumstances. His talent for story development is most certainly bolstered by the power of his prose, which is clean and strong and beautiful. Readers quickly come away fully invested in the characters and entirely swept away by Smith’s scene setting and dialog, which allow each subplot of the novel to shine as if it were standing alone.
Smith is certainly one of our Mississippi writers claiming ranks among the Southern grit literati, but I don’t get the feeling he’ll let any of the accolades distract him from honest and involved storytelling. His characters clear a path for truth about the modern South, avoiding all detours toward stereotype and cliché. Smith has recently announced news of his next novel, Blackwood, so we won’t have to wait long for another immersion. In the meantime, I still have The Fighter to look forward to.
Editor’s note: Mary Margaret White, executive director of Mississippi Today, is on the board of the Mississippi Book Festival. Mississippi Today is also a book festival funder.