There are four of them, four characters with four separate voices telling the story of the fifth character that is the place itself—the fictional small town of Argus, Illinois. In slow circles, author Michael Loyd Gray closes in on his tale of Jessie, the small-time dealer living on the outskirts of town in his trailer; Raul, who calls himself that, but is really Dominick, a vet recently returned from Vietnam and not quite fitting in as yet; Nicole, the young clerk in the grocery store, fresh out of high school and looking a little like Cher and not particularly appreciative of the attention that earns her; and Art, the town sheriff, keeping an alert eye on all of them, sizing them up.
Gray maintains an easy pace throughout, somehow managing to make the reader feel that even when all culminates in a short gun battle, that we are watching slow-motion action. It's an interesting feat. It is what makes the town of Argus come alive with its own presence, its own pace, its own turning axis. Argus is a town removed, the sort of place where everyone seems to hanker to leave, yet few do. And some come back.
A Pabst beer can pops open, a campfire crackles beside a lake, a trailer lights up in the night like a lone beacon, a sheriff leans against his patrol car and watches, watches. It's like that. That slow, but never dull. Gray tosses in just enough spice, with perfect timing, to keep interest at a slow simmer. He dabs in color for one character and then moves to the next, but the switch is always smooth. Gradually, the characters intertwine, bump a little off each other, develop bonds, share a dream or two, pass a toke, become partners in crime. Something is about to happen, but we almost don't care, much, when or how or what. We are just along for that smooth and entertaining ride, sitting by that same campfire and taking a swig.
All that easiness doesn't mean these characters don't go deep. Each has his or her own scars and frustrations, a few old ghosts and fears to overcome. As the moment of culmination arrives, the reader will wonder if we will have one or two fewer characters left alive. No spoilers here. But the bit of a twist, the almost gentle surprise, is pleasing and feels just right.
Gray lets us see deeper into the fiber of sheriff Art this way:
"The memory of that night in the Chicago alley came back to him again and in his head he again saw the muzzle flash and felt the sting of the grazing bullet. It came to him in slow motion. He sweated and his forehead itched. He scratched it with the back of a hand and peeked again across the creek. Nothing moved in the grove. There wasn't even a breeze to stir the bushes. He wondered what the man was thinking. What was his plan? He hadn't fired a shot yet. Maybe that was good. Something to build on. Art was thankful there had been no wild gunplay when he pulled into the lot. The man seemed more interested in just getting away. .. Art didn't know the circumstances. He didn't know shit about the man or anything about why it happened. He was working blind in the bush. He had a stray thought of Raul in Vietnam, working the bush and trying not to get shot, but looking for someone to shoot—to kill. He wondered if Raul had killed anyone. The Viet Cong. Was that the tick under his skin fueling his drift, his barely-concealed confusion? Or maybe he had killed but didn't know it. Those fire fights could be distant, men dying without their killers ever knowing.
If Art killed today he would know it."
Michael Loyd Gray is the winner of the 2005 Alligator Juniper Fiction Prize, the 2005 The Writers Place Award for Fiction, and his novel December's Children was a finalist for the Sol Books Prose Series Prize. Gray is a graduate of the University of Illinois and Western Michigan University. He worked as a newspaper staff writer in Arizona and Illinois, taught in colleges and universities in New York, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Texas, and Georgia. He now lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
Gray talks to The Smoking Poet about his work on Well Deserved as well as his other novels. The interview will appear in the Winter 2010-2011 Issue, online at www.thesmokingpoet.com later in December 2010. Don't miss it. It's slow and easy and simmers all the way to the end.