I finished reading What We Reckon by Eryk Pruitt the day Charles Manson died.
Manson put the cult in American culture, although it would take Jim Jones to get us to drink the Kool-Aid. Religion, Marx said, is the opiate of the masses.
Yonder roams Pruitt.
What We Reckon is a strange and surprising book. It begins as a druggie Bonnie-and-Clyde tale, as Jack Jordan and Summer Ashton (not their real names) light out for East Texas to move a kilo of coke hidden in a hollowed out King James Bible. The profane invests the sacred from the get-go.
You are a narcotic, Jack tells a seductress in Houston, before she laughs in his face.
From a couple of downward-spiraling hustlers we plunge more directly into the world of the cult. Tables turn. Betrayals mount. Will Summer get her man? Does Summer even know who she is?
I didn’t like everything about the book, but the things I didn’t like were usually outcomes of Pruitt taking risks, and so he deserves some kudos for the attempt. At the very least, What We Reckon is unpredictable.
I did find it difficult to make the adjustment halfway through when the story takes a radical turn. It becomes a different book, and I was invested in the first one. I also found it hard to swallow Summer’s involvement with a scary neo-Nazi, who plays a useful narrative role, but why a hippie chick would have allowed him into her life in the first place never clicked with me.
My third concern is that the backstory of Jack and Summer isn’t clarified to my satisfaction: Pruitt winks and elbows, which may be in keeping with the characters’ ever-deteriorating holds on reality, but I never saw the moment when Summer first fell in love with Jack.
Against these flaws is capable writing and ambition. Pruitt weaves between the characters’ perspectives with deft skill, even when they’re on drug-fuelled binges or just plain bonkers. When he needs to light up a scene with poetry, bam, there it is. The dialogue is fantastic. He writes with a knowledge of East Texas and the American South that is beyond dispute, but without ever throwing it in your face.
Pruitt wants to go deep into the nation’s soul and take a thorough accounting. He explores the links between drugs and religion, relationships and manipulation, belief and cynicism, crime and punishment, madness and reality. Rural America’s ledger is still helter skelter.