S.A. Cosby knows that he’s prone to excess. He told The Guardian as much in an interview last year:
“I write long sentences. I like similes (maybe too much, according to some reviewers). I like to write esoterically. I pontificate and wax poetic in the middle of gunfights. That’s my style.”–S.A. Cosby
In his latest novel, Razorblade Tears, he cements his reputation as an emerging master of…what shall we call this genre? Murder mystery? Thriller? Action? Hollywood’s already on board with film rights sold to Paramount.
But I wouldn’t have picked the book up if it were one of those genres and I certainly wouldn’t have made it to the end if there weren’t something deeper beneath the over-the-top violence and propulsive pacing. No, what hooked me was that the book is what Cosby calls Southern gothic noir. He’s not trying to be Lee Child or Jo Nesbø. He’s got Southern literary legends in his sights.
“The holy trinity of southern fiction is race, class and sex,” Cosby told The Guardian. “Those are the underpinnings of the great books of the south, whether it’s William Faulkner’s Light in August or Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood. For me, the best southern fiction takes the hypocrisy of the south, a region that seeks to steep itself in religion and moral rigidity, and melds that with the reality of a multitude of social, sexual and class backgrounds and situations.”
Cosby certainly brings the whole trinity into play in this latest book, set in landscapes like Richmond and his native Mathews County on Virginia’s Middle Peninsula. At the foreground of the narrative are characters who don’t often get center stage—two aging ex-cons, one white and one Black, living in a poor, rural county, who set out to avenge the death of their sons, who were married to each other.
Partners of convenience are no stranger to this genre, but Buddy Lee and Ike are fighting their own internalized racism, homophobia, and the ghosts of their violent pasts as much as they are the well-heeled villain and his biker gang henchmen. The men become more human even as their actions become more callous and vengeful. And they lay bare the ways the world is changing around them even as some things stay deeply the same.
The excess is not only in the violence, but in the way Cosby’s language pops with crackling images. He is prone to similes but they are original and energetic, adding depth to the interchanges between the characters. “A white-hot rage” flames in Buddy Lee’s chest “like a shattered hurricane lamp.” Ike’s “words flew out of his mouth like hornets riled from their nest.” His wife’s eyes haunt him, “rimmed in red and empty as an abandoned church.”
He can just as easily set a scene with a single vivid sentence. “Ike spied a silver BMW in the rearview mirror, driven by a woman with the most severe I-want-to-speak-with-the-manager haircut he’d ever seen.” The hospital’s “chapel was a shabby thing made up of two short pews, a picture of a Gregg Allman Jesus, and a couple of fake stained-glass windows.”
Cosby is bringing new types of people and rural Southern settings to life in his writing. It has a disturbing, truth-telling gothic lens that Flannery would recognize. So would Larry Brown, whose Father and Son came to my mind several times as I was reading Cosby. He represents a possible vibrant future for Southern fiction.