Derek Robinson made his name writing aerial war stories like PIECE OF CAKE and DAMNED GOOD SHOW, so when I discovered he'd written a historical novel set in mid-19th century Kentucky, I was immediately curious. Robinson is a gifted novelist with a very distinctive style -- glib, cynical, and merciless, but I couldn't imagine him writing witout the roar of Spitfire engines in the background. I was hesitant to buy the book, but I'm glad I did. It's well worth a read.
KENTUCKY BLUES is about two families, the Hudds and the Killicks, who try to settle the same area of the Kentucky badlands ("Rock Springs") on the same day in the 1840s, and essentially never stop feuding for the next 40 years. The Hudds are pompous social climbers with Northern sympathies; the Killicks mostly mean-spirited white trash who pledge allegiance to the South. Both families own slaves, and the slaves, who are freed after the Civil War, become the third "family" in the story, trying to forge a community on the only piece of land the whites will let them have (a mountain wilderness known as The Ridge, which separates Hudd and Killick land). As the years go by all three parties attempt to come to terms with the changes empanicipation has wrought on their fortunes, with varying success, while the feud sputters on, sometimes with tragic consequences.
BLUES has all the trademarks of a Robinson novel, both good and bad. Like most of his works it is full of sub-plots and great incidents but it lacks anything resembling a plot proper-- it is really about the characters and what they go through as they try to scratch a living (or a dying) out of the Kentucky soil.
It has many got many outbursts of brilliant prose and dialogue ("Hard livin's easy. All you got to do is do without."), numerous incidents both hilarious and tragic which will stick forever in the reader's mind, and it's also the frankest and most graphic reconstruction of slavery and the misery that emancipation brought slaves and white folks alike, that I've ever read. Robinson is the antithesis of a politically correct writer. He presents slavery as the disgusting spectacle that it is, but he refuses the idealize the slaves and presents them as they were -- human beings so degraded by whippings and forced ignorance that they were scarcely human beings at all, and had to learn painfully how to find their own humanity. It took genuine guts to write so frankly about the legacy of bondage, and Robinson has guts in plenty.
On the other hand, the book is much longer than it need to be, and it suffers badly from a lack of likeable characters. Robinson's view of human nature is pretty grim, he's a firm believer in existential outcomes and the rule of Murphy's Law, and he's forever making trivial incidents the axis upon which human lives turn for the worse. In his stories, vice is rarely punished and virtue almost never rewarded, except by ironic outcomes, few people learn lessons, and age brings not wisdom but bitterness. Few writers, except maybe Orwell, have ever taken such a dark, unromantic view of what drives human actions and lives. I'm not saying he's wrong, merely that such an unvarnished view of people tends to be depressing.
Having said that, I was really impressed by this book's ability to hold my interest and to recreate the lawless, savage atmosphere of the 1800s. Everything Robinson describes -- cattle drives in Texas, first-fights, con men selling snake oil, jury trials held in barns, an ex-stud slave named T. Speed recounting how he had to produce 200 slave babies a year or get "sold South", a raft-ride down the Mississippi -- is so authentic and powerful you truly believe that it is real. If the book rambles to an abrupt and arbitrary conclusion that settles nothing, then this is more or less Robinson's view of human life...and in any case, life is a journey and not a destination. And KENTUCKY BLUES, rambling as it is, is also a helluva journey.