Eryk Pruitt’s What We Reckon is a greasy southern mess of violence, drugs, and religion centered around the relationship of con man Jack Jordan and Summer, a couple with a Honda, dreams, and a kilo of cocaine in a hollowed out King James Bible. It continues in the tradition of Pruitt’s wild southern noir. We caught up with the man to talk about the book, his characters, and the region he writes about.
MysteryPeople Scott: The core of What We Reckon is a lovers-on-the-run tale before it explodes into something bigger. What do you like about that sub genre of crime fiction?
Eryk Pruitt: I grew up in a small town with no ironclad guarantee that one day I would leave it. I’d sit out on the highway and dream up every possibility there was to dream about how to get out, and many of those possibilities involved something illegal. I think it was natural that I’d gravitate towards stories where someone chucks everything to throw caution to the wind and take off with somebody else. Stories like Agatite by Clay Reynolds or With by Donald Harington helped scratch that itch.
I think that everybody living on the grid believes they’d be better living off it. And most folks appreciate someone who could co-pilot, that might share their dark sensibilities, or at least enable them for a while. This is why the Bonnie and Clyde story still gets told. Life is full of moments where folks zigged, but wonder what may have happened if they zagged.
Lately, these stories have best been told by Wiley Cash, in This Dark Road to Mercy; Jordan Harper with She Rides Shotgun; and Donald Ray Pollock’s masterpiece, The Heavenly Table. I can only hope my crack at a story within the sub-genre offers enough deviation to stray from what folks might ordinarily expect. Or at least, give them a laugh…
MPS: At times I felt there was touch of Flannery O’Connor to the book, the way religion plays a part. What did you want to explore in the South’s spiritual side?
EP: A long-standing trick I’ve learned since living in the South: when dealing with repairmen of any sort, always be sure to namedrop Jesus. Every time you toss out a “…if the good Lord permits it…” or “blessed be,” a hundred dollars drops off the estimate. It’s a brotherhood, with its own decoder rings and secret handshakes. You have to learn that language and speak it, then be ready for any and all opportunity.
In What We Reckon, every character shares a dark hole inside themselves, and search constantly for a way to fill it. I think this best describes the plight of the religious person. Some people have scratched prosperous livings off nursing that need. Televangelists, cult leaders, and con artists carrying a King James Bible with a kilo of cocaine have very few degrees of separation between them.
We’re no longer surprised by the hypocrisy of Robert Tilton, David Koresh, or the Catholic pederasty. Now it’s more fun to talk about how we call pull one over on the hypocrites, instead of the other way around.
MPS: I also thought of Jim Thompson in the sense that as over the top as the plot got, I always felt grounded with the characters. How do you think you pulled that off?
EP: I feel I ask a lot from the reader when I ask them to sympathize with my characters. I treat their empathy as a very precious commodity, because once I lose it, they will put down the book. There has to be something for them to identify with, to keep them going. Hopefully, they find something inside Jack Jordan or Summer Ashton that speaks to them, and once they’ve locked in on that…we gradually increase the temperature. We slowly close the door behind them.
Both Jack and Summer have started to slip. It’s probably been happening for a while, but the frays are starting to show at the edges. While we may not believe in the things that Summer is seeing with her own two eyes, we can fully empathize that she believes them, and that is what is important. Jack may not really be coming down with every disease in the world, but he’d be the last person to know that.
MPS: Your books are soaked in southern culture. What do you want to convey about the area you grew up and live in?
EP: I love the South. I think it’s a wild, spooky, haunted, terrible, beautiful place and I’d have a hard time enjoying myself anywhere else. It’s my understanding that most folks think of the South and Southerners as a pejorative, but not me. I’m not down with the old ways, but rather what the kids call #NewSouth. A pot that melts. An all-inclusive gumbo of cultural collisions that enjoy a six-month tomato season.
That being said, the South is also a product of that disturbing past and that conflict should continue to churn out good fiction for quite a while. Themes of race and religion have only deepened and it’s been interesting to see how they’ve been dealt with in the past in Southern crime canon by William Gay, Daniel Woodrell, and Ernest J. Gaines. Since those pages have yet to be turned, it will be interesting to see how the newer guys like Greg Barth, S.A. Cosby, and Marietta Miles deal with them.
MPS: Much of the book takes place in Texas. Do find that a different kind of south?
EP: It’s my opinion that East Texas is the strangest place on earth. It’s shares the same collision of cultures enjoyed by much of the South, but in East Texas, it’s done behind the shroud of a heavy, pine curtain. All it’s “crazy” has been kept in the shadows. It’s the reason Joe Lansdale will never run out of material.
I grew up in East Texas, and went to college there. I’d fall short in any attempt to properly describe it, so my best suggestion would be to watch Eric Hueber and Andy Cope’s film Rainbow’s End, or the Carl Crum thesis “East of West.”
MPS: What makes unsavory characters so fun to write about?
EP: It’s a pressure release to let all those inner, unchecked desires off the leash. Maybe a million dirtbag options fly through our heads at any given fork in the road (maybe they don’t for some people…who knows?), but it’s nice to live through someone else’s mistakes.
Plus, it allows us the ability to vicariously exact revenge. Even if you don’t like the kinds of people that Jack Jordan or Summer Ashton have become, you might stick around to see them get their comeuppance. Chances are, you know someone just like them and, while you were never able to give them the what-for they so truly deserved, you won’t mind turning another page to watch someone else give it to them.
But of course, I don’t find them unsavory. I’ve fallen in love with them both and only root for them.
Eryk Pruitt will be on our panel discussion, Hard Boiled Fiction Past & Present, with Mike McCrary and Rick Ollerman, November 6th, 7PM