Politicians like to refer to "criminals" as though they were a separate breed, but in John Brandon's debut novel, Arkansas, the network of low-level drug traffickers crisscrossing the American southeast are all ordinary folks who sort of fell into crime. Swin Ruiz, a Vanderbilt dropout who's spent his whole life underachieving, becomes a courier in order to fill the time until he can write his first book and get fast-tracked back into academia. He's partnered with Kyle Ribb, an Athens, Georgia townie who compromises a strong work ethic with his violent temper and disdain for authority. Shortly after Swin and Kyle meet on a run, they get relocated to a state park in Arkansas, where they work under the supervision of a ranger who moonlights as a business manager for a mysterious drug lord known as "Frog." None of these people knows each other's history, or what they might be capable of. Theirs is an organization built on unearned trust and sacks full of money.

Brandon splits Arkansas between the third-person story of Swin and Kyle—told in short sentences, packed with curt descriptions of the thrift stores and ethnic restaurants where they conduct their business—and the story of Frog, which Brandon tells in second person. The voice-switch encourages readers to identify with Frog, a keen-witted badass who seems to know exactly what he's doing, and to look askance at the two young heroes, who seem dedicated to squandering any advantage life might hand them. The problem is that Frog is a more engaging character than Swin, Kyle, or any of their friends and associates, and after a while, readers may feel the urge to flip past the tedious "and then this happened" recounting of the dope-ferrying life in order to learn more about how the cautious, clever Frog built a criminal empire in the sticks.

Advertisement

Still, even though Arkansas sputters as it motors along, Brandon does give vivid descriptions of the scenery, capturing the look and feel of neglected small-town storefronts and the featureless flatness of interstate travel. More importantly, Brandon gets at the particular combination of restlessness and laziness that would make an otherwise sensible person turn to crime. The characters in Arkansas are smart, handy folks who could do just about anything. In the end, the possibilities overwhelm them.