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Razorblade Tears
S.A. Cosby
Flatiron Books,
US, 2021

I have been talking for some time about the new wave of crime novels coming from Black authors.  There is Stephen Mack Jones, Attica Locke, Tracy Clark, and more.  And as I’ve mentioned before, unlike the great Walter Mosley, whom I adore, many of this younger generation don’t hesitate to address race head on.  In S.A. Cosby’s latest, it takes center stage and packs a good, hard punch.

The setting is the author’s state of Virginia.  It begins with the murders of a gay couple, Isiah, who is Black, and Derek, his white husband.  There may be a lot of rednecks in the area, but murder seems unlikely without a motive. Especially as the young men were upstanding professionals with no history of trouble.  The police are dragging their feet and it is feared it will become a cold case.  Enter Derek’s dad, Buddy Lee, a “discount Sam Elliott,” with a seedy criminal past and underground connections. He approaches Isiah’s dad, Ike — a “big ol’ bear” — a  fellow criminal who has done hard time, but has been living the straight life for a full fifteen years, busy running a successful landscape business, and still married, unlike Buddy Lee.  Besides sharing a criminal past, these two, who had never met before, share something else, which now tortures them:  they had never accepted their sons’ homosexuality, which caused a huge riff.  Nor had they accepted their granddaughter Arianna, now three years old, whom the couple had had through a surrogate mother.  As the pain and regret eats away at them, Buddy Lee comes to Ike with a proposal:  to go after the murderers themselves.  Ike is hesitant.  He knows if he agrees, he’ll unleash “Riot,” his badass alter ego, and scorch the earth to hunt them down.  But, of course, he does finally agree and the two men, in an unlikely partnership, team up.

Naturally, in the course of the novel, there is much banter touching on race.  As Buddy Lee says of himself, “I’m not racist or nothing. Just don’t know a lot of Black people,” but he grew up on racist tropes and expressions, which Ike calls him on, opening Buddy Lee’s eyes to a thing or two.  At one point, Buddy Lee says the only color that matters is green, and comments on how well Ike has done with his business, living in a nice house with a nice truck, while he lives in a “shitty trailer park.”  “Would you switch places with me?” Ike asks. “Do I get the truck?” Buddy Lee asks.  To which Ike answers:

Oh, you get the truck.  But you also get pulled over four or five times a month because no way your Black ass can afford a truck like this, right? You get the truck but you get followed around a jewelry store because you know you probably fitting to rob the place, right? You get the truck but you gotta deal with white ladies clutching their purses when you walk down the street because Fox News done told them you coming to steal their money and virtue.  You get the truck but then you gotta explain to some trigger-happy cop that no, Mr. Officer, you’re not resisting arrest . . . .  

But it’s not all one-sided.  Ike has some things to learn from Buddy Lee, too.  About friendship and loyalty, about not acting out in a gay bar (on the trail) in a belligerent way when a gay man touches him. “We both learning,” Ike says. 

Of course there is a clear motive behind the murders and it involves a woman named Tangerine, a biker gang of white racists and a big honcho at the top pulling the strings. It’s a wild-as-hell ride as Ike turns Riot, and Buddy Lee shows he’s of equal mettle, both men drawing on scary connections from the past, but basically it’s these two renegade middle-agers taking on an army while shedding tears of regret along the way for how they’d turned their backs on their sons. 

I love the rawness of the dialogue, way down and dirty at times. I can’t think of when I’ve read such gritty back-and-forth, especially in this era of language sensitivity, but it rings true at every turn and delivers its share of laughs, too, such as when a Black barber quotes a “gay, Black, and cool as fuck” lawyer, speaking of the South and why he left:  “…. the only way you don’t get fucked with growing up Black and gay was if you could do hair or lead a choir.”  A laugh, yes, but with that sad undertow of truth.

It’s a joyride from beginning to end, full of violence, but not without warmth such as that which slowly develops between our two protagonists.  J.A.

(see also review of S.A. Cosby’s Blacktop Wasteland)

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