SLOW BEAR by Anthony Neil Smith (reviewed by Jim Thomsen)

Posted by Fahrenheit Press on

When a proper old skool noir guy like Jim Thomsen notices one of the books on your list you damn sure better sit up and take notice.

This review he's written of Slow Bear by Anthony Neil Smith is as detailed as it is thoughtful and we knew after we read it that we wanted to bring it to the widest possible audience so we asked Jim if he'd let us re-publish it here and thankfully he agreed.

It's a great review but it doesn't shirk away from some of the difficult issues facing fiction authors today and we think it adds to the conversation in a thoughtful and positive way.

We hope you get as much out of reading this  piece as we did

Great Gonzo Noir in the North Dakota Oil Fields

5 out of 5 Stars

“You think Deadwood is the frontier? Shit, Deadwood is a casino resort town for retirees now. You're sitting in frontier central right here. Williston might as well be Saigon during the war. Or, or, like New York back in its scummy days."

"People thought he was a burned-out drunk but that wasn't true. Most of the time he was burned-out sober."

You know you're in especially dark literary territory when your main character is a former corrupt cop who's still corrupt, lethally so at times, and doesn't even have a code to fall back on to justify what he does or doesn't do — and can still be surprised at discovering even deeper shades of darkness in the world just outside his dirty window. That's Micah "Slow Bear" Cross, former everything, scraping by on the bare minimum of usefulness he has to the world after losing his arm in a gun battle. It's also Anthony Beil Smith, prolific author of what he calls "gonzo noir."

SLOW BEAR is neat subversion of the trope of the antihero. Slow Bear is just anti. The two things that separates him is his distance from the power structures that operate both on the "rez" where he lives, and Williston, the nearby Wild West town turned halfway ghost town in the wake of the fracking bust that followed the boom. He's the sort of guy who sees so little money, dirty or otherwise, that he drinks orange juice because he finds coffee to be too expensive. The second thing that separates him: he's touched in some not-quite-blackened part of his heart by Kylie, aka Bartender Lady, who's been around and seen it all and yet sees something in him worth liking, or at least hooking up with sometime, and while Slow Bear is so beaten down that he can't quite summon up anything as other as love, he feels protective of her. And when the ability to protect her is taken away from him, that's when he rediscovers everything that once made him feared and respected. And then some.

I like Slow Bear, and SLOW BEAR. I like that he's no snappy, quippy, deck-stacked avatar of masculine gravitas. He's schlumpy, lumpy, hangdog, and thinks about as little of himself as just about everyone else does, to the point that he hardly seems to mind or notice when others beat him up for sport or just because he presumed to be fit to stand in the same room with them as something approaching a peer. He's a loser. And yet he's a loser with an extra gear that gets engaged when Kylie is kidnapped — and when he finds that everybody who's using him is, in fact, using him with the intent of discarding him. Which he seems he almost wouldn't mind. But, Kylie.

I've read several Anthony Neil Smith novels, and SLOW BEAR is my favorite. This is the first of his novels I've read in which he doesn't seem to be straining for something, like tribal identity within the noir genre, or mass acceptance beyond it, or to fit a commercial template his considerable talents don't readily accommodate. Here, he seems to be writing for himself, for the need to tell stories, and as a result, there's no clunky prose, few implausibilities (though I didn't buy all of Slow Bear's wild escapes from certain-death scenarios), and a sense of comfort and calm control that turns the pages without cranking up the twists for contrived effect. This is Anthony Neil Smith just being himself, I suspect, and that's pretty good.

SLOW BEAR came out at about the same time as AMERICAN DIRT, and just as it's impossible to escape the controversy over a white woman writing what's hailed as a definitive novel of the Mexican migrant experience, it's impossible to read SLOW BEAR without wondering a little about whether the white author wrestled with questions of cultural appropriation in writing from the point of view of an American Indian, and as such, whether he got the details right. I'm a white man myself, and so I don't feel qualified to answer. I know from the news that alcohol and drugs are rampant in tribal communities. and that bent cops aren't confined to off-reservation jurisdictions. I know there are good people in those worlds as well.

In the end, I come back to the fact that Smith is simply telling a story and not trying to make definitive statements or crowd native voices out of the conversation about native experience, and if that is his intention, then it's a well-executed intention. It’s been said about AMERICAN DIRT that if its publishers were simply content to sell it as a thriller and not the next GRAPES OF WRATH, there wouldn’t be as much controversy and people would simply slip into the stream of the story, get to the end, and get on with their lives. But there’s intention and there’s execution, and as a New York Times reviewer said about AMERICAN DIRT, execution matters for far more. And SLOW BEAR, as a thriller, Is executed wonderfully.

The other questions will continue to rattle around in my mind, because that's part of the interrogation everyone who engages with art should have with art. It's a conversation that will continue, in my mind and in the world. And it's a conversation I feel better equipped to have by having read SLOW BEAR than by setting it aside out of white-guilt discomfort over the questions that start the conversation.

Thanks again to Jim for allowing us to republish this review here - you can find out more about Jim over at his website

You can order SLOW BEAR here

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