Blacktop Wasteland: A Novel

Image of Blacktop Wasteland: A Novel
Release Date: 
July 14, 2020
Flatiron Books
Reviewed by: 

Bullets, car wrecks, chases, mayhem. There is lots of blood. Blacktop Wasteland is grim and gritty.”

Buckle up.

Place both hands firmly on the steering wheel.

Check your mirrors.

Now turn to page one of Blacktop Wasteland and press the accelerator ever so gently.

What’s that noise in your ears? It’s the sound of an action-packed story roaring to life.

Our main guy is trying-to-stay-straight family man Beauregard Montage. He’s a car guy, to say the least. He knows how to fix them. He knows how to drive them—occasionally at extreme rates of speed. Say, after a robbery. He’s got a “symbiotic relationship” with automobiles. “The thrumming vibrations that worked their way up from the blacktop through the wheels and suspension system like blood moving through veins until it reached his hands. The engine spoke to him in the language of horsepower and RPMs.”

But Beauregard’s repair shop is suffering. His mother’s account at a managed care facility is $48,000 behind “because something went wrong with her Medicaid.”  All in all, Beauregard is way behind with his debts.  

Beauregard, aka Bug, also wants to keep his family life separate from his other life, the one that relies on less-than-professional talents and uncivilized skills. “He didn’t want that world to touch his family. He didn’t want it to sully them with its filth. He was three years removed from that place, but he knew it still had teeth.”

Beauregard wants the “family tradition” of crime and violence to end with him.

What keeps Blacktop Wasteland firmly on the road is Beauregard’s family and friends. We see his strong relationship with his wife, Kia, and his different relationships with his children. Kia works the ten-to-six shift at a Comfort Inn but might take on a second job. The young boys, Javon and Darren, often spend time at Kia’s sister’s place. There is also Beauregard’s daughter, Ariel, by an alcoholic mother. Ariel is 17. She’s late to graduate high school. Beauregard wants her to understand that he did everything he could to gain custody through the courts. Beauregard wants his kids to dream beyond auto mechanic school, beyond working with their hands—if that’s what they want. And there’s all of Beauregard’s friends, including cousin Kelvin and many more.

“Listen, when you’re a black man in American you live with the weight of people’s low expectations on your back every day,” Beauregard counsels Javon. “They can crush you right down to the goddamn ground. Think about it like it’s a race. Everybody else has a head start and you dragging these low expectations behind you. Choices give you freedom from those expectations. Allows you to cut ’em loose. Because that’s what freedom is. Being able to let things go. And nothing is more important than freedom. Nothing.”

S. A. Cosby gives all these side characters agency and depth. (A few of the cars, too, get the full-character treatment including Beauregard’s precious Duster.) We meet Beauregard’s extended family and we see the world that’s at risk when Beauregard gets an offer that, given his financial predicament, is simply too tempting to resist.

It’s a heist. The organizers have someone on the inside of the jewelry store who will make everything easy. The heist crew wants Beauregard to sign up, given his well-known talents as a wheelman in addition to possessing an eidetic memory. At first, he resists—and then succumbs. One last job to fix all his financial woes.

And there are problems. The heist goes violently south. And not everybody involved in the heist is being square with Beauregard. (Unless you’ve never read one heist plot or seen one heist movie, that’s no spoiler). And, as Beauregard works to straighten out matters, he finds himself soon in another spot where he needs to travel further down the road into that other, darker life. 

Blacktop Wasteland, as good a truth-in-advertising title as any out there, serves up a fast and furious finish that is not for the squeamish. With prose lightly dusted with noir touches, the story eats up the road with fury. Bullets, car wrecks, chases, mayhem. There is lots of blood. Blacktop Wasteland is grim and gritty.

Can Beauregard stay clean? Can Beauregard live two lives at once? At the end, you may want to give the parking brake an extra tug to make sure you’ve come to a complete stop.