Sheldon Lee Compton’s new novel, Brown Bottle, is an Appalachian Gothic, a tragic Kentuckian tale with two shots of Jim Thompson and a jigger of William Faulkner stirred in for good measure. Wade “Brown Bottle” Taylor, or just Brown as he’s called, is no slapstick drunk but the real deal, a self-loathing Vietnam vet who buys two fifths of whisky at a time—one for now, and one for when he wakes up. Everyone in the small eastern Kentucky town of Sandy looks down on the Taylors—Brown, his sister Mary, and nephew Nick—as the worst kind of trash, as unemployable drunks and generally dangerous folk. This isn’t unwarranted: Brown had killed even before he went off to war, and as this short novel opens we learn that Mary has run off with a local pastor (known to have bedded more than a few of his congregants) and left teenaged Nick behind just as he’s beginning to get mixed up in snorting OxyContin and stealing to support his habit. Compton has this to say of Nick:
“His life was not something he could share, never was. He knew that as far back as he could remember. His uncle made that clear and his mother was even more adamant. On the one hand, he had his uncle explaining they were different, his family, and that people were going to talk about them but to pay them no mind. Likewise, his mother had her far darker version that always fashioned the bitterness into a thing of workable hatred.”
Written in a bruised and bitter eastern Kentucky dialect—at times one can almost smell the cheap whisky on the narrator’s breath—it’s a prose style that is jarring at first, but one to which I quickly grew accustomed.
After Nick nearly overdoses in the trailer of a local drug dealer by the name of Tuck, Brown begins to feel a blossoming sense of responsibility for the boy, and it is this that spurs him to go after the drug dealer to teach him a lesson, an act that begins a series of events that propel the novel’s plot to its bloody end. Tuck’s brother Stan isn’t happy with Brown’s action and isn’t afraid to grab his shotgun when he needs to; Stan’s wife Hen is a pill-pusher herself and will do what she can to protect herself. Brown is after Tuck, Stan is after Brown, and Nick is after Tuck’s stash. Everybody is quickly driven to violence, either as revenge for what has happened or as a preemptive strike for what they fear the other party may do. When the town Sheriff, Dan Bell, learns of this feud, he tries to dissuade both parties from further action. Little does he know, his own daughter Ashley is dating Nick.
Enter into this mess Fay Mullins, a man known in these parts for his bloody work and brutal efficiency, a man Sheriff Bell has been trying to nail down for years for past crimes. Word spreads throughout Sandy that Fay is back in town. No one knows who hired the man or for what exact reason, so everyone fears the worst and believes themselves the target of this killer. In many ways, Fay is after everyone, for information if nothing else, and while everyone has their eye out for Fay (and everybody else), Fay himself cooks up a plan for how he can kill the one he was hired to kill, kill the one who hired him, and get all of Tuck’s stash—a last bloody hurrah he hopes might allow him to retire for the rest of his days. All of these interwoven plot elements form the dynamic of Brown Bottle’s ongoing battle that will leave some shot, a few dead, and some merely bruised and bloody from having the bejesus beaten out of them.
This novel is a good, quick read, reminiscent to my mind of the crime novels of Jim Thompson, but with Brown Bottle, one is not only treated to the blood and grit of that type of fiction, but also to a prose style that sometimes surprises with Compton’s understanding of the poetic soulfulness inherent in those who live hard and fast lives. I look forward to his next novel.