Sunday, July 12, 2015

Sweetwater Blues by Raymond L. Atkins, reviewed by Charlene Jones

Mercer University Press, Macon, Georgia, 2014, 340 pages, $18 US. Available here.

Rodney Earwood and Palmer Cray are joined in destiny from childhood to death. That death comes very early for Rodney Earwood at the wheel of the car driven by his best friend Palmer Cray. The accident, fueled by booze, is one which finds Palmer Cray’s post–high school experience limited to the cells of Sweetwater Prison. The rest of the story involves Cray’s experience while doing time and his unusual habit of writing regularly to his dead friend, Rodney.

The book is well written. Atkins clearly loves to write for the sake of writing, but he keeps his love directed toward service of the book itself. His descriptions bear witness to that. For example, on page 156 he writes: “A chill had settled onto Sweetwater State Correctional Facility and hung there like a blanket of fallen snow. The cellblocks were heated, but the cells were built of cold steel, unyielding concrete, and hard time, and they held no warmth to speak of.”

The author also understands the possibility of sentence structure and uses it to his advantage.

For instance, he regularly employs a variety of sentence structures, as he does to express the following: “Because he was so young and in light of the fact that his father was whaling away at him at the time of the slicing, Razor had not been tried as an adult for the crime.” Much more effective than writing, “Razor had not been tried as an adult for the crime because he was so young and in light...” etc. (p. 123)

Not only does the shake up in sentence structure provide added expression to particular scenes, it adds spice to the overall read. Since Atkins teaches English at Georgia Northwestern Technical College we might expect such expertise.

The plot of the novel is simple and direct: the accident, followed by incarceration for the protagonist leads to an unexpected ending. The characters are what drive the book.
Atkins builds Cray as a complex young man capable of intense loyalty, instinctive physical responses that surprise, and deep thought. Cray’s father plays an important role in the novel, as his presence offers the reason we don’t read the usual path of prison life.

Atkins avoids sensationalizing his depiction of prison with scenes about rape. Through the presence of Cray’s father as the main prison guard, we learn Cray’s experience in prison will be less extreme than it may have been without his father’s care. His father puts him in the cell with his cousin, Cheddar.

Atkins characterizes Cheddar as a former meth head and dealer who lives without moral regret for his former profession. Cheddar, and his ex-wife Bay-Annette, nicknamed for her thorniness, provide some lightness by way of their characterization and view of the world. Cheddar also offers some help in giving Cray advice in the ways of prison life.

If the book weakens a tad across some of prison life, it is after all fiction. Atkin’s fiction rises to a larger theme in the latter half of the book, as we begin to understand different kinds of prison: the prison of addiction, the prison of being muted emotionally, the prison of physical illness and yes, the prison of death. Or is it the prison of life?

It’s a good read, interesting and thoughtfully written.

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Charlene Jones’ poetry has most recently appeared on Commuterlit. This, poem, “Visitors to the ROM” was a runner up in the Ontario Poetry Society’s annual Arborealis poetry contest. Charlene also writes for her radio program Off the Top with Whistle Radio, 102.7 fm, aired every second Tuesday from 3:00 to 3:30 p.m. (Note: Whistle Radio and CommuterLit have recently teamed up to run a monthly contest. Details here.) You can see Charlene perform her poetry and prose at Portobello Restaurant and Bar the first Saturday every month in Toronto. Finally, Chalene’s first novel, The Stain was released in September.

See Brian Henry's schedule here, including writing workshops and creative writing courses in Algonquin Park, Barrie, Brampton, Burlington, Caledon, Cambridge, Collingwood, Georgetown, Guelph, Hamilton, Kingston, London, Midland, Mississauga, Newmarket, Niagara on the Lake, Orillia, Oakville, Ottawa, Peterborough, St. Catharines, Sudbury, Thessalon, Toronto, Windsor, Halton, Kitchener-Waterloo, Muskoka, Peel, Simcoe, York, the GTA, Ontario and beyond.

2 comments:

  1. Raymond Atkins has done it again. Sweetwater Blues is a beautifully woven story about a young man and a choice he makes one night that lands him in prison. This book is brutally honest and full of empathy. The characters stay with you long after you close the book.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Raymond Atkins has done it again. Sweetwater Blues is a beautifully woven story about a young man and a choice he makes one night that lands him in prison. This book is brutally honest and full of empathy. The characters stay with you long after you close the book.

    ReplyDelete