June Davis has plenty to worry about. Fewer than 30 pages into “Inertia: Treachery in Illaska,” the debut novel by Anchorage author B. Sellars Briggs, June has managed to anger a local drug lord named TC by cutting his face after he failed to pay her for sex. Fearing revenge, June has chosen to hide out in a decrepit crack-house where she sinks into a drug-induced stupor and tries to remember the life she once dreamed of. Just as fantasy begins to distract her, an egg sac, laid in her mouth by a passing cockroach, explodes, shocking her back into reality.
One thing’s for sure. This isn’t Alaska Quarterly Review.
Published last year, “Inertia” is a sleazy little gem of a book. Sure, the text is rife with mangled syntax, the characters make unbelievable choices and the plot is as surprising as a slot machine in Vegas. The same can be said of any Dana Stabenow novel, and it hasn’t hurt her career at all. In a local literary scene increasingly dominated by copper-mine murder mysteries and reflective memoirs of “the summer I spent on a fishing boat,” Briggs’ raunchy, brutal page-turner is a refreshing breath of dirty, urban air.
Don’t look for good guys. At the center of the plot is June Davis’ nephew, Curtis, who somehow has grown up pretty well adjusted despite being raised in an apartment that doubles as a brothel. When Curtis gets recruited to run drugs between Anchorage and Los Angeles, the temptation of huge bankrolls and a limitless supply of crack cocaine make quick work of him. And when he finds his beloved aunt being beaten by a disgruntled addict, Curtis discovers he has a propensity for cold-blooded killing.
Briggs gives his narrative life by moving fluidly between dwelling on his characters’ charming weaknesses and their scary strengths. As the plot progresses, we see into the minds of the various gangsters in the drug ring, all of them ruled by appetites. At times, Briggs allows the novel to fall into a slow paced, summery lull as the characters indulge in a life of rich food, ragtop cars and graphically illustrated sex. But maybe this life just isn’t satisfying enough.
Everyone in this novel is out to destroy everybody else. Each gang member has a plan to get away with the big payout and, when he’s been crossed, he resorts to schemes of torture so deliberate that it seems Briggs is making the point that violence is just the natural next rung on the ladder of thrills that starts with drug use and petty crime.
And yet there’s also a sense of pain and frustration here. TC and his gangsters seem like tight friends at the beginning of the book, and Curtis is genuinely honored to become part of their crime fraternity. You sense just enough of the characters’ humanity that you feel they might have achieved genuine community in a better world. For the most part the book is concerned with the various intricacies of who’s back-stabbing whom, but the last chapters are infused with a sense of waste and hopelessness, which are Briggs’ key achievement in this work.
The roots of Briggs’ style can be found in authors Donald Goines and Iceberg Slim, both of whom are cited by the author. The terse, slightly formalized narrative voice filled with shades of slang and police-blotter lingo is especially true to Goines, as is the lack of playfulness and humor. For all the gritty detail and raw dialogue, the realism of “Inertia” gets snagged on the paradoxical fact that the more seriously a writer takes his story, the less seriously the readers are able to take it. No tragedy occurs in life without humor lingering nearby.
In the end, “Inertia” is a wonderful piece of pulp fiction with the potential to be something more. At certain points, as when he describes the rocky life story of addict John Marshall, Briggs flirts with a much more direct and honest style of writing. Factual questions of who, what and where are eclipsed by a more urgent “Why?” In the harsh final pages of the book this style returns to the fore. If Briggs keeps developing his writing toward sincerity, he will certainly be something to watch.
“Inertia: Treachery in Illaska” is available at www.barnesandnoble.com.