Good Noir can come from anywhere, and from anyone. I’m talking GOOD Noir, now, not some half slung hash, over-spiced with reheated Chandler cliches and goopy private eyes.
Good Noir comes from J David Osborne, possibly without even him knowing it. Because he’s such a natural, unaffected writer, he probably has no idea that his not just hard boiled, but hard scrabble stories are imbued with the essence of Noir – that life altering darkness which creeps up from the interchangeable ground to squelch even the most optimistic character or sub-plot. Some writers just write dark, married to it on a cellular level and unable to escape that particular minor key. A singer can’t change the voice that bubbles up the esophagus when the vocal chords start to hum. Writers are like that. J David Osborne is like that.
In what will someday make one hell of an NPR interview, Osborne hails from the flatlands of Norman, Oklahoma, performs hip hop, hangs with Bizarros, and pens some of the most refreshingly original and fully mature stories that I've recently read, all without yet crossing over into his third decade. I say “mature” not in that school marmish, ratings board sort of way, but as a vehicle to describe his well-formed, lived-in prose, stripped away of showy trappings of a young writer eager to show off all that dime store plumage. “Full grown,” as John Spencer once sang.
Osborne writes older than he is, meaner than he is, maybe even leaner. His style is post-Weird and rural Beat, influenced by Dirty South dubs instead of Harlem jazz, set in septic backwaters rather than humming capitals of culture. Patient minimalism is dotted by blooms of true poetry, with acres of arable subtext filling in the blanks. He brings home along with him, as the grit of Oklahoma clay country courses through his ink, tinging all that black with a measure of red. And just when you think everything more or less makes sense, here comes the slider, cutting sharp and inside, to back you off of the plate.
With his second novel, Low Down Death Right Easy (Swallowdown Press, 2013), Osborne once again reaches out into the scabrous hinterlands of landlocked nowhere to unveil an intertwined collection of reluctant dreamers and three time losers, all trying to get by while navigating the rusted out refuse of the American Dream gone rancid. His sidewalks aren't cutting through Manhattan, but just as gritty and choked with weeds, leading past convenience store ice heads and rundown bars on out to the end of town, where “suburban” means greasy double wides and ATV tracks. Strange, brutal, yet disturbingly familiar, this is the sort of story you can taste on the back of your tongue like a hangover that stretches into nightfall, and makes you appreciate every last clean and hopeful thing you have in your life.
The familiarity stems from his diverse cast of characters of varying races tight-roping that narrow rung between working class and barely working poor, and those who work all of them over. The kind of New Heartland Americans who fish for their dinner, in between trips to KFC, after shopping at the newly erected Big Box monstrosity that grew up like a sowthistle over the last bones of Local Color left in a thousand small cities doting the less cluttered parts of the map. Hovering over all this meat and posturing is a fragility that lends a sadness to the day-to-day routine, the explosive howls of violence, the slow ride in the mud caked pickup truck after another failed job interview. The right thing is right in front of you, but the wrong thing is even closer, and doesn't demand that you bend down to get it.
That spine of Low Down Death Right Easy is the vertebra of brotherhood, as we follow the sometimes interconnected lives of two sets of brothers. Everyone crosses paths in a small town, and in an Osborne story, that doesn't usually end well. In a series of short, punchy chapters that structure the book, we are introduced to the lead character Danny Ames, who is looking for his missing brother, when not dealing with his mother’s worry and the local knuckleheads at the flypaper raver club where he works muscle, which gives the IRS a distraction away from his similarly heavy fisted after-hours gig. I've told Osborne that I think Danny deserves his own line of books, a la Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder, and I meant it. Ames is that fascinating a figure - the sort of person who changes the air of a room when he walks into it, no matter how low key they are attempting to be. He’s just one of Those Guys. You can’t take your eyes off of Danny Ames, even when you can’t actually see him. The other pair of siblings are Sepp and Arlo Clancy, the latter married and the former adrift in that transitional haze of youth abutting the bleak reality of limited options and the immovable criminal justice system, who give readers a more domesticated side of this world, yet both struggle with keeping their heads screwed on straight. It’s not as easy as it sounds, as the distractions of the low road pop up everywhere. And the catfish pond is never too far away.
When I read Osborne’s writing, first introduced to me through his award winning debut novel - the gulag nightmare By The Time We Leave Here, We’ll Be Friends - I have the sneaking suspicion deep in my marrow that we’re witnessing the foundational bricks of an Important Career. Osborne would probably snicker at this, then take of sip of his warming can of beer, look off into the flat horizon, and see something that none of the rest of us ever will. Those with that sort of sight, shaded by the darkness, by that Noir that is waiting for us in even the most brightly lit corners of life, are the writers I want to read. And so I will.
J David Osborne lives in Norman, Oklahoma with his wife and dog. He is the author of the Wonderland Award-winning BY THE TIME WE LEAVE HERE, WE'LL BE FRIENDS and LOW DOWN DEATH RIGHT EASY. He is currently writing the free, online pulp serial GOD$ FARE NO BETTER, which can be found at jdavidosborne.com. He is also the editor of the brand-new crime fiction imprint Broken River Books, and would love to see your best stuff at firstname.lastname@example.org.