Review: Black Gum by J David Osborne

Having read a couple of Osborne’s previous works (Low Down Death Right Easy and Our Blood In Its Blind Circuit), and having found them both rather impressive, I’ve had my eye on Black Gum for some time. And I’m glad to tell you it didn’t disappoint.

Originally, I think Osborne pegged the project as a direct sequel to Low Down, in that Danny Ames (one of the main characters in that novel) plays a major part in the proceedings. But somewhere along the way the project seems to have changed and become something else, something different. Ames only appears in the last third of the book, in a small, though significant, cameo, and the book itself feels different in tone and texture to its predecessor. The narrator is a bit of a man-child who lives with an old friend after the failure of his marriage. They deal drugs, have parties, and hang out with the friend’s strange cousin, Shane; and generally they just exist in a vacuum where life is the stuff that happens to other people.

Whereas Low Down felt like a surreal crime drama, Black Gum feels more like a naturalistic drama with an element of crime running through it. The moments of weirdness that punctuate Osborne’s LDDRE are mostly missing here – consisting instead of minor details weaved into the main text (Shane’s body modification, Juggalo parties, the narrator’s strange trip at the end of book). It is also a very short work – more novella than novel – but that intensifies rather than diminishes the book’s impact.

Black Gum has a Carver-esque clarity to it, insofar as its simple, well-written, pared-back prose gets on with telling the story without the need for posturing and posing. What little action there is done without grandstanding; instead, it has more in common with the blink-and-you’ll miss them moments of real life. I liked that Danny Ames’ one-and-only appearance here is done without any real violence (he appears, the characters realise resistance is futile and do what they’re told).

If you’re looking for balls-to-the-wall crime action you won’t find it here, but what you will find is quality, character-based fiction with criminality weaved through it. Black Gum comes highly recommended.

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