Down and Out Books
Reviewed with a pre-release eARC provided by the publisher
Texas Two-Step, the debut novel from Texas native Michael Pool, is a slow-burn heady bong hit of a novel that builds on the initial promise of Pool’s first novella, Debt Crusher, but uses its expanded length to find its own odd tune. As rich with characterization as it is with drugs and violence, it could be tempting to compare Pool to Texas crime writing legend Joe Lansdale, whose east-Texas-set capers also involve larger-than-life characters working through their various deadly plots and plans, but Pool’s tone and tune are different from our traditional understanding of Texas-set crime fiction, and Texas Two-Step will ultimately be embraced by readers who find themselves willing to step in line with the book’s unique music.
The story revolves around a last-minute deal set up by two small-time marijuana growers from Denver, Cooper and Davis. These dealers, who came up in the weed game by growing their own crop and selling it in parking lots outside jam- band shows across the country, are expert cultivators, but the definition of amateurish criminals, and while that in some ways provides them an advantage--their method for transporting the weed from Colorado to Texas is ingenious, and an example of the kind of creative problem- solving more crime writers should include in their work--they’re also in way over their heads, and their amateurishness causes them to miss every chance to identify the shit they’re swimming in until it’s too late (and there are several). This becomes especially clear when their Texas-based broker, a coked-out party boy from Austin named Sancho, is introduced, and turns out to be even sloppier than Cooper and Davis feared. Throw in a Johnny Manziel-style professional football burnout named Bobby Burnell, a Texas Ranger, Kirkpatrick, working a borderline unethical case he really doesn't want to be associated with at the insistent prodding of a state senator, a corrupt county sheriff, and Bobby’s uncle Troy, a hormone-infused MMA meathead with absolutely no compunction about killing, and you have all the ingredients for a violent, double-crossing ride through the piney woods of East Texas, even before Cooper’s personal stake in this one last job is raised considerably by the news that he’s about to be a father.
It would be normal, I think, for someone to read the above description and imagine a novel in which the stakes are continually raised, in which characters are betrayed not just once, but several times throughout the course of the novel, but Texas Two-Step’s unique tune becomes apparent in the way it pulls these characters together then pulls them apart again, hinting at what is to come but consistently slowing things down once the inevitable appears just over the horizon. There’s a conscious delay in the novel that begins to evidence itself starting even in the first third of the book, and while I think some readers will see the delay as too long or too protracted (there’s a part of the book where, in the course of four chapters, there are three separate scenes of characters playing pool), it’s undeniable that this continual delay is something that Pool is doing on purpose, structuring Texas Two-Step not as a traditional crime thriller, but instead like a song from one of the jam bands Cooper and Davis are always name-dropping, laying the groundwork and letting the middle parts play out before a big finish. Whether or not that works for some readers may very well depend on their familiarity with jam bands and their willingness to indulge texture and character over straight-ahead plot, but by the start of the last third of the novel, after another delay, it’s become obvious that Pool is more interested in exploring the areas between crime fiction and the drug-addled anti-narrative of something like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas than anything more straightforward or conventional.
Speaking of one of the great American drug books, another area exhibiting Texas Two-Step’s unique tone is in its depiction of drugs and drug users, particularly the slang used to capture the ins and outs of the most dedicated marijuananauts: Too many novels toss off slang or suggest methods of ingestion that are clearly more influenced by television than any particular kind of experience, but Pool has filled his novel with the kinds of details that only come through lived immersion or heavy research, and the novel is better for it, especially as the drug use and the accompanying mental toll that use creates crescendoes at the climax of the novel. The prose around the characters and their smoky interactions are a little less colorful, however, with most of the book presented in a workmanlike simplicity that goes out of its way to remain unobtrusive, instead focused on clarity of action and character.
Kirkpatrick crossed the street and went into the bar. The place was dark inside, with original brick walls down one side and stained concrete floors. A long wooden bar ran across the left side of the place, then beyond that a hallway to the bathrooms, and across from the bar a door out onto the porch, which occupied a space between buildings that had to have been a building itself at one time or another.The above is from a section in the middle third of the book. The writing is fine, perfectly clear and readable, but it is odd that, in such a musical novel, the prose doesn’t quite sing. In the scene above, where a cop is tailing a group of suspects into a darkened bar, the language used doesn’t work to add any additional tension or ambiance to the scene. For some readers, this won’t be a big deal, but Pool is clearly a talented enough writer that, while I appreciated the clarity, I missed what he could have done to wring more tension out of the novel, especially as its elongated delay pulled these characters closer and closer together.
If there are disappointing elements to Texas Two-Step, they’re only evident because so much else is done so well. Throughout, the main characters, Cooper, Kirkpatrick, and Burnell show unique, oddly-faceted sides to themselves that make them seem like real people, but in every instance they’re paired up with other characters whose flatness is especially obvious when compared to the roundness of the leads. Most of the time a supporting character like Davis wouldn’t be a disappointment --ultimately, he does what he needs to do --but compared to how fleshed out Cooper is, Davis is barely able to hold his presence on the page. Most of that can probably be attributed to the third-person-limited structure of the chapters, but there are other characters like Troy who rise above that limitation without issue. Also somewhat disappointing is a particular plot thread involving the corrupt sheriff that ends without resolution; once someone that ruthless is introduced, we expect them to either be brought low or, in a noir, grimly triumph. In Texas Two-Step, neither really happens, which mars an otherwise damned solid ending.
One of the biggest themes in Texas Two-Step is how terrifying it can be to go straight, to give up the road life and the smoke in your eyes in favor of something more conventional. Ultimately, it’s not just a theme, but the basis for the whole plot; Cooper has lived his own odd life, and while it doesn’t seem like a life many of us would be particularly interested in living, Cooper doesn’t think he can settle down with something more ordinary. There’s a lot of honesty in that, and an acknowledgement that staying true to yourself requires a willingness to risk it all.
Texas Two-Step grows out of that exact sentiment. It’s unique and unwavering in its commitment to being different. To offering something unique. Texas Two-Step is not a book you’ve seen before. It’s a book that doesn’t care about crime fiction convention, but instead wants to get stoned and dance in the parking lot. It’s not a book trying too hard to give you a downer ending or thrill you with ultraviolence, it’s a book made up of those moments in long songs when you feel like the ending is just around the corner and god damn is it going to feel good when it gets there. It’s not a book interested in the philosophies of criminals or the thin line between cops and robbers, it’s a book that’s asking if you want a puff, and if not, no big deal, but it’d be a lot more fun if you came along for the ride.