A Rising Tide of People Swept Away
by Scott Archer Jones

"The room was hot, just the way she liked it, hot enough that she sweated in penance. In the kitchen the preacher echoed forth from the radio, his phrasing taut, compelling, and rhythmic as a hymn."

A book cover with all the words of the title written in lower case—a hint, perhaps, that some lives are afforded less respect than others. Then a dedication to the working poor—further evidence that what you are about to read has nothing to do with the public’s seeming obsession with wealth, celebrity, and the glitterati. Lastly, the novel itself—far from a screed or polemic, more an homage to humanity with the realization that the effort is the truly important part, regardless of the outcome.

There is something in the hardscrabble existence of the denizens populating this author's Albuquerque strip center circa 2009 that puts one in mind of John Steinbeck’s far earlier neighborhood inhabitants of Cannery Row and Tortilla Flat. Maybe it’s the way that humor often serves as a salve for the many afflictions befalling them. Or maybe it’s the recognition that family can emerge as much from communal commitment as it does from bonds of blood.

The plot of Jones’s novel initially centers on a small boy who so abhors living with his parents and siblings that he prefers existing in the alleys, nooks, and crannies of a decaying collection of retail outlets. The youngster’s decision is understandable as readers become acquainted with his father’s criminal endeavors, his mother’s reliance on booze and dope, his sisters’ frailties, and his older brother’s violent tendencies. Owners, operators, and workers who eke out a meager existence at the mall’s bar, restaurant, hair salon, religious novelty shop, and other stores take pity on the boy and go out of their way to make sure he not only gets enough to eat but also has a safe place to stay atop one of the establishments. Soon, however, both the boy’s and his benefactors’ subsistence is put in peril. The city plans highway construction that will literally eviscerate the strip center. While the city is claiming its right of eminent domain, the citizens face upheaval they can’t afford economically and can’t handle emotionally. Will their community band together to fight City Hall? Can the march of progress be allowed to uproot individuals whose lives are so permanently invested in where they live and work? And will the at-risk child be forced to return to his poisonous relatives? Answers play out to all of these questions before the novel’s end.

Jones’s players, like his narrative, are steeped in realism. He creates flesh-and-blood characters that rise above fictional caricatures. Their dialogue bounces back and forth with the volley of real conversation. Their behavior credibly responds to the situations in which they find themselves. Their emotions resonate with truth. The author’s style is lyrical when it wants to be, logical when it needs to be, and continually engrossing, whether depicting acts of kindness or scenes of brutality. Above all, his writing reverberates with compassion. You sense that he both understands and empathizes with the types of people he’s chosen to fictionally portray. If you’re looking for a book that shuns easy genre categorization, one that offers insight as well as irony, the kind of novel that accurately represents a level of society you may be lucky enough not to know, and a tome unsparing in its reflection of life as it often is—rather than simply the way we’d have it be—then read this book. You’ll remember it long after the last page has been turned.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

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