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Cold Black Earth

I read ‘Cold Black Earth,’ by Sam Reaves. Full disclosure, I’ve met Reaves a couple of times and I like the guy, so I won’t pretend to be completely unbiased. At any rate, this is the story of a woman who leaves her job at the State Department and goes back to what was once home, the northern Illinois plains, just as a psychotic murderer escapes prison and people start to die. In some ways this is a conventional murder-mystery, including a bang-up ending that I did not see coming. In other ways this is a story about ordinary people living lives of quiet desperation as they attempt to cope with a changing world where nothing seems to be as dependable as they once thought.

I once had a project in Davenport, Iowa, and I used to fly into Chicago and drive across the flattened landscape, which seemed as featureless as the playing surface of a pool table, and almost as interesting. It felt to me as though God, unhappy with his original design for the space, just pounded it all down with his shovel and called it a day. I wondered, at the time, how anyone could live in a place like that and not wind up blowing his own brains out. Reaves does not answer that question, but he does bring the landscape to malevolent life.

What I like about Reaves’ style is that he writes with an admirable economy of words, which is something that is much tougher to do than it sounds. Where lesser writers struggle, page after page, to flesh out a character, Reaves can give you the essence of the person in a couple of sentences or a few lines of dialog. There are a few writers of ‘literary’ fiction, maybe more than a few, who could profit from reading ‘Cold Black Earth’ to see how he does it.

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