Southern noir with a teaspoon, and sometimes a hammer, of religion. That describes the writing of Jake Hinkson, the author of three novels, one novella, and a short story collection. He might not be known to the masses, but his books are worth your time to read. (Forget about the fact you can own them all for less than $20.) When trying to describe his writing, some have referred to him as a mix of Flannery O’Connor and Jim Thompson, and others have called him a ‘hardboiled hillbilly.’
I first read Hinkson in 2014, starting with Hell on Church Street. He hooked me within the first few pages and by the second chapter I couldn’t put it down. I recommended Hell on Church Street more than any other book last year.
In Hell on Church Street, a con man talks himself into the position of a youth minister at a church in a small town in Arkansas. He manipulates the pastor’s underage daughter into a sexual relationship and all hell breaks loose afterwards. Hinkson’s descriptions of religious life and the ease with which a duplicitous person with a kind smile and the right religious platitudes can gain church people’s trust is deadly accurate. The seedy youth minister meets his match and murder ensues.
The Posthumous Man takes a familiar tale and adds a twist. Man wakes up in the hospital after attempting to kill himself and falls for the attractive nurse, who is in with the wrong crowd. A criminal gang ready for the one big score. The gang start turning on one another like snakes in a pit- greed rages, lies are told, bodies fall, and then comes the big ending. To tell you about the ending would ruin the story. It was so good, I read it twice.
Saint Homicide. With a title like that, you know religion will play a factor. The novella is told from the viewpoint of a passionate anti-abortionist, who has an ill wife. The anti-abortionist also struggles with lust and self-hatred for his impurity. When the religious man makes a mistake, how can he atone for his sin?
The Big Ugly tells of an ex-con, newly released, hired to find a missing woman. She encounters southern politicians, televangelists, petty criminals, while dealing with her own family who doesn’t understand her actions, and others intent on causing her more harm. She struggles to figure out who, if anyone, is telling the truth, and to do so before she and the missing woman are killed.
The Deepening Shade, Hinkson’s collection of short stories, landed this past week. In these stories, Hinkson demonstrates his craft as a writer. In each one, he leads you down a path, letting you think you know the outcome, before taking the story in a different direction. Markers and Coke, the first in the collection, tells the sad story of a down on his luck police officer, who can’t bear to face shame and embarrassment. Randy’s Personal Lord and Savior revolves around an employee’s interaction with a zealous Christian. The Empty Sky is the haunting tale of a childless senior citizen. Three of the best of the collection, in my opinion, are: The Serpent Box, which deals with snake handlers, two drifters, the crime they commit, and the agony of revenge; Night Terrors, about a one-night stand gone wrong; and Our Violence, about a widowed father with two sons, a plot of land, and how the father’s intense faith inspires one son and turns the other away.
The goal of a writer is to entertain, and Hinkson does that and more.
His characters, particularly when he mixes in religious fundamentalism, compel you to see them as people, even though you may not like them or agree with them. Sometimes, the danger of fundamentalist and religious zeal is evident (Saint Homicide). At other times, the gullibility of religious people is demonstrated as they are snowed by a smile and the right words (Hell on Church Street). The religious people want to trust someone. In some cases, particularly in the short stories, you see people who believe to their bones. The ripples and dangers of their belief seems apparent to all around, alienating family and friends, but not to them. In a sense, it makes you feel for them, even though they can be held partially responsible for what occurs (Our Violence in The Deepening Shade).
As a reader, I enjoy Hinkson’s writing. I can read these stories again and again. As a writer, he gives me a level to which to aspire.