Review by Curtis Cole
Author Sam Reaves knows how to set the mood: for his latest suspense novel, Cold Black Earth, he paints a dilapidated picture of American industry gone wrong; de-industrialization has made the land “looked tired” (1 ), causing protagonist Rachel Lindstrom to fear finding her “lost Eden… changed” (3). Rachel has good reason to be frightened of change after being away from her home town, Peoria, Illinois, for over twenty years—during which she missed the death of both of her parents (6) as well as the suicide of her sister-in-law (7)—while being forced to fight on behalf of Empire in Iraq, she now desires nothing more than an existential recuperation, to be babied and doted upon while she reconnects with old friends, hopefully assuaging her war-time horrors. All of which points to the realization that what haunts Rachel is not memories of her youth, of finding her home changed, but the engines of American capitalism itself.
The economic situation of Peoria is stark throughout the novel. Old barns are town down (4) not merely because they are old, but because farming practices have swerved to large-scale businesses of ‘concentrated animal feeding operations’; those of the kind which favor tens-of-thousands of livestock (26). When Rachel’s brother, Matt, says that “Peoria’s not exactly the economic powerhouse of the nation these days” (3), he is referring to the predominant conclusion which Rachel stumbles upon during her tour of home and discovering the barn and chicken coops empty (9), namely that what ails Peoria is neoliberalism, that virus which has drained labor to the point of metaphor—that now even the land itself, the cold black earth of the title’s sake, now suffers from factory jobs going overseas (47), the characteristic which gives the land its tired and bleak traits. Labor has been so assaulted that no future seems bright. Indeed, so dire is Peoria that the only “break” it could receive was during the eighties when after “the plants closed” a medium security prison was built, allowing the town to cut its teeth “on a growth industry” (15). Needless to say it is not surprising when severe reaction sets in and violence, murder, fills the gap left by industry; for when one makes a deal with the Prison-Industrial Complex devil, nothing but social discord can follow. For Rachel’s post-State Department life, also coincides with the escape of notorious murderer-cannibal Otis Ryle (35); an allegory for how capital’s contradictions, its cannibalizing effects, ultimately devour those who brought it into existence in the first place. With but only the bankers and conmen, the upper-strata of the petty-bourgeoisie, coming out on top (59), clearly this little hamlet has seen better days.
Cold Black Earth is a class conscious novel. Acting as a record of de-industrialization, it stands—yes—as an allegory for economic decline but more specifically, it does so via what some critical theorists within the school of Affect theory dubs as “an affectual procedure”, or something which delimits the emotions of an individual within a space, called an “existential territory”, where a series of events are setting in motion complicated relations to human interaction, tinged by class structures.
Rachel adheres to such a reading perfectly. At the beginning of the book she is overly tired to the point of seemingly projecting her exhaustion onto the Earth, while at the end she is forced to swallow the bitter truth of her sojourn where though she “had this fairy tale home” (262), there are ultimately no utopias—no escapes into a perfect capitalism where affects enable a crooked grin to come to the mouth of a one-time prom date. She realized that her existential territory, Peoria, tried her absence and sentenced her to reality: her delimitation was precisely her understanding of the illusory nature of the perfect bourgeois-oriented affect, that day-dream which cows the masses into accepting what has been called “Disney Dreams”, of living happily-ever-after with the unhappy reality of neoliberal de-industrialization. Rachel preservers through hell to find herself once more on the train-station platform, leaving Peoria, this time with the knowledge that there is no affectual escape within capitalism—the issues and problems which arise must be internalized and conquered from within, away from that, loosely defined, counterrevolutionary ‘brain chemistry’ which so ensnared those who lived before her as farm wives looking out over the rolling meadows, wondering what lied beyond.
I will only offer a word of caution by mentioning the tone… it is bleak. The atmosphere of the novel is one of isolation, depression, and fear. The author brings attention to the classic Victorian text Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, and for good reason: from start to end the story here reflects a contemporary interpretation, from perhaps somewhat more optimistic heights, of that nineteenth century text; people who dislike ‘the serious’ should steer clear of this work. For anyone else, however, especially those who are considering reading more suspense books, I can say Cold Black Earth is a decent place to start.
With Sam Reaves an experienced author, and my lack of fault finding in the actual gears of this latest book, its punctuation and grammar, I would say that any fan of his previous books could back the literary soil of Cold Black Earth. Although at times the character development could do with a bit of a kick and the plot more directed, over-all, I believe that this novel is more existential than thriller: at the end of the day this is a story about a woman attempting to find herself after a hard life; the serial killer on the loose is there merely to accentuate and add additional resonance to her struggles by means of subtext. One should approach this novel as one would a piece of modern art—meaning, there is more there than what is on the surface.
Cold Black Earth
262 pages. Published by Thomas & Mercer, Seattle. $4.99 (Kindle), $8.35 (Paperback). 2015.