When a friend sent me an advanced reading copy of Ravens with a note that said, “There is no one to like in this one,” I prepared myself for a dark and bleak journey through South Georgia grunge. That is exactly what I got, but “grim and gritty” is just the glue that holds this yarn together. George Dawes Green’s Ravens combines nightmare, humor, white-knuckle tension and a roller-coaster ride that never eases up. It has been a long time since I got my hands on a psychological thriller that captivated me like this one.
Meet Romeo and Shaw, two drifters from Ohio (Romeo has a pistol; Shaw is psychotic) who are on their way to Key West, Fla., with a vague plan to get jobs on a fishing boat, when a series of random events changes everything. First, somewhere in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Romeo runs over a possum that becomes lodged in the car’s fender well. Later, near Brunswick, Ga., when the Toyota Tersel develops a shimmy and a bad smell, Romeo wakes his fellow passenger, Shaw, suggesting that they stop and check the tires. At a convenience store called Chummy’s, Shaw overhears a teenage clerk talking about a winning lottery ticket for $318,000,000. Shaw learns that the winning ticket belongs to a Brunswick family named Boatwright and he immediately develops a daring scheme: He and Romeo will hold the family hostage and demand half of the money.
At first, Shaw’s plan seems silly — especially since he seems to be making it up as he goes. However, within an hour, Shaw’s vague scheme has evolved into something complex, methodical and deadly. Shaw invades the Boatwright home and forces the father, Mitch Boatright, to inform the lottery officials that he and Shaw are dual winners ... and old friends. Concocting a story about their meeting at a crisis center where Mitch was a counselor, Shaw has a series of interviews with the media and begins to acquire the trappings of a cult hero — especially when he announces plans to give “his share” away.
In the meanwhile, Shaw has given Romeo a map with the homes of all of the Boatwright relatives marked on it. Romeo drives a continual circuit, enduring the stench of rotting possum (which he thinks is the pervasive smell of Brunswick). He is linked to Shaw with a cell phone. Romeo has instructions to call Shaw at specific intervals, and if Shaw fails to answer, Romeo is to start killing Boatwrights, including a grandmother, in-laws and close friends. “Just kill whoever is nearest,” instructs Shaw.
Eventually, the strange bond between Shaw and Romeo begins to acquire a deeper, disturbing character. Shaw is accustomed to assuming the role of leader while Romeo is the devoted servant, committed to performing his master’s orders without question. As Shaw attends press conferences, church services and rallies with the helpless family, the lonely, introverted Romeo continues to drive his endless circuit. Finding himself the center of attention and with a growing cult of admirers, Shaw becomes increasingly irrational and manic. Romeo, “the angel of death” with a .22 pistol, begins to feel abandoned and spirals toward self-destruction.
Perhaps what is most disturbing about Ravens is the alterations in the Boatwright family. Mitch, the father (and a religious man) becomes increasingly fatalistic and submissive; his alcoholic wife begins to fantasize, seeing Shaw as her future lover; Tara, the teenage daughter oscillates between sexual lust and a desire to murder Shaw; and Jase, the young son gradually becomes Shaw’s disciple, eager to supplant Romeo. For each character, the unrelenting tension and danger of their trapped lives forces them to confront their own unnatural fears and yearnings. Eventually, the Boatwright family and all of their friends willingly submit to Shaw’s control.
Although the foregoing details do not appear to be comic, Ravens has an abundance of dark humor. Finally, if the reader makes a few grudging concessions, there is even one character who qualifies as a hero ... of sorts. Burris, the old, obese policeman, who is referred to as “Deputy Dawg” by his fellow officers, becomes suspicious and questions the clerk at Chummy’s. Despite the ridicule and contempt of his superiors, he launches an investigation of Shaw and Romeo. Ironically, when all of the other characters are filled with indecision, it is Deputy Dawg who perceives a way to bring peace and resolution to this kinky, terrifying tale.
Ravens, which will be published this month, has been “anticipated” for 14 years. George Dawes Green published two prize-winning novels, The Caveman’s Valentine and The Juror in 1994-95. Then came this lengthy silence. Advanced critical response indicates that Ravens is well worth the wait.
(Gary Carden is a writer and storyteller. His recent writings can be found on his blog, hollernotes.blogspot.com.)