Once in a while I come across a writer who is so dexterous, so acute, that I am willing to follow him to whatever depths of depravity to which he chooses to descend.
Tim Willocks is such a writer, and in Bad City Blues, he has elected to visit a deeper place than I have gone before. The setting is a Louisiana hotter, dirtier and uglier than the one I have visited and it is peopled with demons disguised as policemen, addicts, thugs and men of the cloth. These creatures are violent and vengeful, heaping pain and indignities upon one another with an abandon that should chill and repel the reader, but the spare beauty of the language keeps us hanging on through the worst of it.
There are only seven characters in Bad City Blues and in lesser hands such paucity of interaction might seem cramped and claustrophobic, but it's clear that Willocks requires every one of the books 245 pages to bring them to life and could probably have done with another hundred or so.
As with most of stories of human nature, Bad City Blues is about two brothers. It is a logical way for a writer to start - two men who have had the same upbringing and background should turn out roughly the same way, yet one goes bad, the other goes worse. Cicero and Luther Grimes (Grimes - dirty, besoiled, low - even the names are evocative) are white trash who haven't spoken in years due to an unnamed wrong committed by Luther on Cicero. Luther spends most of his time in South America, training death squads and dealing drugs, while his brother elected to go to medical school. Cicero could have been a successful doctor, but instead now lives in a broken-down firehouse in a broken-down part of town and tends to the afflicted, often free of charge. Does this make him a good man? No, not really. Violence and retribution boil just below the surface of his calm demeanor. Though the "good" Grimes does not uncork his rage, the bloodlust surges through him and is as ugly as the acts perpetrated by the other characters.
Separated by years and miles, the brothers are pulled together by Callie Carter, a former hooker and current addict, who is on the run with a million dollars stolen from the bank where her husband is a Vice President. The husband, Cleve Carter, is also a television evangelist who sparks through his brief appearance in this book like a high-voltage wire chewed through by wild nutria.
Clarence Jefferson is a crooked cop who destroys or befouls everything he touches, including his sweet and unassuming Baptist wife. He catches wind of the million dollar heist and sets out to claim his piece of it, leaving a wake of bloodied and broken humanity behind him.
Bad City Blues is a ferocious and extraordinary book that will be enjoyed by fans of Chuck Palahniuk and James Lee Burke and burned in horror by fans of Agatha Christie and Joan Hess.