Burn What Will Burn by CB McKenzie

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Burn What Will Burn by C.B. McKenzie is one of those rustic novels of Americana that will have you sitting back at the end of the tale wondering just exactly what you’ve spent the last few hours reading. It has the brilliance of Cormac McCarthy with the depth of character that reminds you of some caricatures out of the Andy Griffith show. The sense of down home, uneducated, inbred, small town south bleeds through this tale and what at times is it’s strongest charm, is also it’s most powerful detraction.

Bob Reynolds has left his life behind, the shattered remains of what was left of it, and retired to this small Arkansas town to hide away from the world. Bob mainly keeps to himself, eating at the local restaurant and passing the remainder of his day at the Crow’s Nest, the local bar. His closest neighbor passes their time breaking into to his home and throwing rocks at his car, but Bob doesn’t really care. He just wants to spend what is left of his time drinking moonshine and wondering around the countryside. That is, until the day he walks along the creek near his home and sees the body floating by. He doesn’t recognize the man, so it can’t be a local. But then Bob isn’t really a local either and he is never sure how the small Arkansas town feels about him. Bob reports the body to the local sheriff and when they go back out, they find it gone.

Now Bob Reynolds knows he has real problems. A missing body where he is the only witness. A checkered past of his own; his wife dying of a heroin overdose by drowning in a bathtub. The lone outsider in a very closed knit community. Now a dead body that has disappeared. Bob knows he is better off leaving this alone but he finds he can’t. There are too many unanswered questions and in a town full of secrets, Bob Reynolds is not about to become another one.

McKenzie has written a terrific character driven tale of southern greed and immorality. How the darkest and most evil secrets are those that sit in plain sight. Bob Reynolds is a powerful example of a man who has lost everything but still looks for a reason to go on. Sitting on his porch, raising his chickens and drinking away his inheritance. He lets the locals do whatever they please. But a dead body floating in the creek is too much for even Bob to turn a blind eye to.

But it is also the characters that take away from the book as well. Their uniqueness is only showcased when placed next to a normal group of people. In this tale, there is no normal group of people. Even the town coroner, slash, local doctor whose homespun remedies and advice are a caricature of the old time southern gentlemen, seems to have a darker side to him. The sheriff who is also the main drug supplier and the local mechanic whose more lucrative trade seems to be prostitution. Eventually this carnival of characters overshadows that there is a mystery here. A dead body that disappears and a small town’s past that haunts its inhabitants to this day.

As the tale unravels, so does the man who is Bob Reynolds. McKenzie has created a coup of sorts with this character in that he is not truly driving this tale. Instead, we are voyeurs in watching it unravel around him. His sole action being that he is not willing to turn away. He asks questions and investigates some, but mostly he is a bystander who just keeps getting in the way. In such, the story is very much a runaway car that he just can’t seem to dodge. Over and over again.

I know I am being somewhat critical of this story but I cut my teeth on this genre of small town southern crime novels with Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell and it has to date, been my measuring stick for this kind of novel.

Burn What Will Burn is a good tale and well worth the reading.

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