Friday, July 12, 2013

Something Pretty, Something Beautiful by Eric Barnes

Two things struck me while reading Something Pretty, Something Beautiful by Eric Barnes (Outpost19, 2013). The first thing is the movement. Not necessarily the way the book flows, though it will keep you interested and curious from start to finish. What I’m talking about is that when Barnes writes movement – a car full of teenagers speeding down the highway, kids running and tumbling downhill into a gulch, fighting and fleeing – it is as though I was right there in the melee covered with mud and booze. The action is swift, it’s breathy, sweaty and, quite often, bloody.

Something Pretty, Something Beautiful is the gripping story of four friends in Tacoma, Washington, and jumps around among moments of childhood until they approach the fringes of adulthood. Brian Porter is the narrator, though Will Wilson is the ringleader, a young man who carries violence and mayhem with him like a flask of whiskey. Teddy and Coe round out the foursome which blows in whichever direction Will Wilson commands. Those winds tend towards fights and break-ins and some arson while always, always moving.

The near-constant movement is what the young men engage in to fill the emptiness, to fight off boredom and, maybe, to keep from thinking of the future and what each might want outside of Tacoma. The book takes place in the 1970s, and if it were today they might all be diagnosed with ADHD. In Eric Barnes’s Tacoma of the 70s, however, teens swallowed a pill of recklessness, violence and peer pressure.

The second thing to strike me didn’t come to me until late in the book, until page 230 to be precise. It is that I hate these people. I don’t hate them for the things they do, although their actions on the whole are awful, but for what they don’t do. No one ever steps in to stop another from doing the awful thing. It is this lack of will, the absence of strength to be decent, that makes them so unlikable as people. This isn't to say I don't like the characters because of a flaw in the writing. Quite the opposite. Barnes paints their personalities and actions so well that I think of them as real, as walking and talking people. And I hope to never come across such in the real world.

The book is dark. Understand that. This is no light beach read. Barnes takes all of the anxiety, frustration, angst, anger, sex and violence that might collectively fill a high school full of adolescents and condenses it down into these four characters. He keeps it simmering on a flame until it's a bubbling roux and then he holds our wrist and forces our hand into the molten mass. The book is raw and touches at something we've all felt, whether it's the hope for something better or the frustration that it might never be.

There is nothing pretty or beautiful in this book unless it is that hope that there might be something better beyond the city limits and the lives these boys are destined to lead. The stories and the writing will keep you involved to find out if it's possible, to know if one or all of them pack up a car at last and find what it is that might save them. As readers, all we can hope to do is grip the roof of that car as it approaches dangerous speeds and hold on for dear life.

Eric Barnes grew up in Tacoma and now lives in Memphis where he is the publisher of The Daily News, The Memphis News, The Nashville Ledger and the host of Behind the Headlines on WKNO.