As I have traveled all over this country and then some, I’ve cycled through possessions like nobody’s business. Like the man said, “if I’d have kept all the money I done ever spent, I’d been a millionaire a long time ago.” But there’s one item I’ve never in my life been without. Not when I was destitute in Dublin, not even when I was lost in New Orleans. From the moment I found it on my roommate’s dirty floor south of Dallas to the wooded, reclusive Carolina home in which I now live, I have never laid my head more than a stone’s throw away from it.
I’m talking about my copy of Clay Reynolds‘ 1986 novel Agatite.
Yes, I read it again about every two years or so. Like Reservoir Dogs, it still holds up. I still find something new that I may or may not have noticed. And I can neither confirm nor deny that I have been known to find something that has directly inspired something I’ve written. Accidentally, of course.
It’s that good.
In fact, I’ve laid claim that it is the perfect book for folks who love to read about crime. Or noir. Or Southern fiction. It’s got it all.
So what makes Agatite by Clay Reynolds so good? There are dozens of elements in the book which make it ideal reading for a guy of my tastes. However, if I’ve been reading this book since 1992, I have to wonder: did it appeal to my tastes or define them? Hmmm.
For one, it is an exercise in perspective or POV. The story begins seemingly with two characters in different time periods. Roy Breedlove, a youth down-on-his-luck in a small Texas town in 1966, and Sheriff Able Newsome, lawman in the same town during the present day. That the two characters will one day meet is no surprise. How they do it… well, that’s another story.
However, beyond these two, we are introduced to other characters across a tiny spectrum of time. All appear to have nothing to do with the others at first, but cracks begin to show and soon we are one of the six degrees separating us all. Wayne Henderson, the merchant. James Earl Meacham III, a homicidal rancher with a sick sense of humor. Greedy banker Alexander Bateman. And sad, world-weary preacher Randolph P. Streetman. All of their stories are painted with wide, prosaic brushes, creating a mosaic or mural that, before long, sleepily bleeds into the next frame until you realize you’re taking in a masterpiece.
Another element in Reynolds’ explosive novel is the unredeemable, non-salvageable protagonist. The story of Roy Breedlove is a heartbreaking one. Any small town Texas boy recognizes his plight and weeps for him. Breedlove could have been any of us. But let’s face it: we see the storm brewing for the lead character and there is very little we can do for him. No, he’s straight Jim Thompson with a twist of Flannery O’Connor and his ride only goes one way.
But it ain’t no easy ride there? No, one of the most striking assets Reynolds employs is pacing. And his pacing is sneaky. He paints Breedlove, and even Able Newsome, with quick strokes, giving us a vignette with Breedlove then starting a story with Newsome. Throw in the sections of the other characters which offer wider, more panoramic views. Then, just as the reader is lulled into this prosaic tableau… BAM here’s Breedlove to jerk you right back into the middle of the action.
The first few readings can catch you off guard. There you are, reading a little Southern crime book, getting lost in the details of this small town, in the lives of its denizens and suddenly you realize not only that someone has planted a bomb, but that the fuse was lit a few chapters ago. By that time, it’s too late. Nothing in this world can pry this book from your hands at this point.
And within all of this, there is a humor. It’s an honest humor. The humor one gets after being stuck in the same West Texas town for too long. And it’s not long before we’re let in on the joke. A prologue gives you the town history. We live it with Breedlove, son of the town drunk. We are let in on it, thanks to the Sheriff, the banker, the Rancher’s wife, etc. In no time, we’re dropped into this community without a life vest, left to wallow in its history, its secrets, its despair.
But that won’t keep us from laughing. Throughout the book, we hear the gossip of the baptism gone wrong. The lifeguard who rescues the town letch. Any scene featuring Jingles and his crew of demented deputies. We are often reminded that amidst all this oppressive heat (and boy, does it get hot) there is little more to do than laugh and Reynolds offers us plenty of chances to do so.
But although this novel alone allows us to get lost in the fictional town of Agatite, it does not stand alone. Before Agatite, Reynolds published his debut novel The Vigil, a sad but tight, tense look inside the city limits that reads more O’Connor than Jim Thompson. And years later, he produced Monuments, which features the town many years after the tragic events detailed in Agatite.
So there you have it. My dirty little secret is out. I’ve talked up the novel in bars and restaurants from Dallas to Dublin to Durham, but never once would I dare lend out my copy. (Mine was autographed when I met the author in 2004.) I’ve kept it close, maybe for fear that readers of both might see the shadows of Agatite stretching across my own fictional town of Lake Castor. That any unredeemable protagonist would bear resemblance to Roy Breedlove. That anybody trapped in a small Texas town with little opportunity to get out can’t say it any better than Clay Reynolds did, but hell we have to try or else we’ll still be stuck there. That’s my dirty little secret and you should probably buy his book (and mine) and help make it a secret no longer.
Thank you for letting me get that off my chest.
BIO: Eryk Pruitt is a screenwriter, author and filmmaker living in Durham, NC with his wife Lana and cat Busey. His short film FOODIE won several awards at film festivals across the US. His fiction appears in The Avalon Literary Review, Pulp Modern, Thuglit, Swill, and Pantheon Magazine, to name a few. In 2013, he was a finalist for Best Short Fiction in Short Story America. His novel Dirtbags was published in April 2014. A full list of credits can be found here.