Small town stories

S.A. Cosby’s All the Sinners Bleed is a good reminder not to overlook the stories from rural America

Small town stories
Image: Andrew Liptak

I've always been interested in the stories that explore the complexities of rural America. A small-town existence doesn't equate to isolated or backwater, and the problems that crop up in towns and villages often mirror the conversations that you see in their larger urban counterparts. It's easy to caricature these places as as strictly blue or red, but driving through backroads in Pennsylvania the other weekend, I caught glimmers of some of our bigger cultural issues in the form of pro-LGBTQ rights flags and Black Lives Matter signs flying from doorsteps and front yards, while hearing (and contributing to) high-powered gunfire echoing off the hills and fields. That's a simplification in and of itself, but it's clear to me that life here is more complicated than the duochromatic maps we lay out for ourselves.

That dynamic is why I've felt drawn to storytellers like Nathaniel Hawthorne, John Steinbeck, Shirley Jackson, and Archer Mayor as they examine the experiences of those spaces that lie outside of city limits: they capture the complexities and contradictions of American life – not as a prism through which they're translating and simplifying that experience, but where it happens, whether it's facing the dark, threatening woods of New England, etching out an existence along coastal towns and farms, dealing with the strange rituals of isolated villages, or exploring the darker sides of human nature in the bodies that the hills and forests are covering up.

S.A. Cosby's recent crime thriller have sat nicely in that space: Blacktop Wasteland is about a former getaway driver who's rebuilt a new life for himself and his family only to get pulled into one last job to keep it that way; Razorblade Tears follows two fathers who are trying to contend with the loss of their sons while overcoming their own baggage (with lots of cathartic revenge along the way), and his latest, All the Sinners Bleed finds a Black sheriff facing a perfect storm of elements that unearths a hideous crime that delves in to the midst of his hometown's core.

If you've paid any attention to the news over the last decade you'll recognize those issues: the clashes of Black Lives Matter protesters, police brutality, school shootings, white supremacists marches, racism, abusive churches, and a single sheriff who's trying to walk a fine line between all the definitions of just what it  means to keep one's community safe.

Titus Crown had been an FBI Agent working on a counterterrorism beat when he returned home, ostensibly to keep an eye on his elderly father, and was elected sheriff in Charon County – the first Black sheriff in the county's history. He and his deputies are jolted out of their routines when Latrell, a former student and son of a family friend, shoots Mr. Spearman, a beloved teacher and is shot by Titus's deputies when they confront him outside of the school. It's an all-too familiar story (just look at the latest news update), one that immediately throws Charon County into its own sides: folks upset with the police response, those who thought they didn't shoot fast enough, with Titus trying to sort things out in the middle.

Cosby's hook for the novel goes beyond what you see in the headlines: Latrell and Spearman had a history: while searching their phones and house, Titus discovers some disturbing pictures and videos of masked figures torturing and murdering young Black men, sending them off on a scramble to discover not only who the victims were, but who a mysterious third party who begins taunting them as they pursue him. As the case progresses, Titus and his deputies have to take a close look at their home and into the lives and pasts of their neighbors to unravel the story.

A theme that runs through the book is one of memory: that a town's dark past can endure and persist through the ages. Cosby kicks this off with the first line: "Charon County was founded in bloodshed and darkness," following up with a story of the first European settlers who murdered the area's indigenous inhabitants and running up the timeline with the place's other bloody moments. It's less a meditation on fate or premonitions, and more a take on human nature, and how we excuse and forget the actions of the past, even as we face the consequences that return to remind us of those past misdeeds.

A small town is an ideal place to examine this collective memory: not because the back dirt roads or isolated lots are the perfect location for drama and violence, but because they're good opportunities to explore the characters and the relationships that bond them together in a geographical space. They can be insular and complicated places, the folks who stayed behind who live alongside one another for years and generations, the perfect soil for long-running drama to germinate. They're spaces where – in the right conditions – it's sometimes easier to look the other way when confronted by a problem than to deal with the discomfort that pulling the root causes brings. Those buried problems and secrets fester until something breaks, and everything is brought violently to the surface. Those complexities that confront the country as a whole exist on that smaller scale, poking and prodding those long-running neighborly relationships, creating friction points for stories to play out.

In a lot of ways, that's what I see happening in America in the last couple of years: problems that should have been solved long ago that we've simply buried, hoping that they'll go away. Problems like racism, wealth and lack thereof, of power and who wields it, and disagreements over faith, all brought to the forefront of our attention in dramatic, violent terms. They're problems that touch every part of society, from the biggest cities and institutions to small town centers and back roads. Cosby's novel captures all of that, bottling up these crisis in a gripping thriller that's timely and important, and a good reminder not to overlook those rural spaces on the map.