Friday, July 14, 2017

A Review of Raymond L. Atkins’s Sweetwater Blues

“Sloppy luck.” It’s when fortune saves an individual from a terrible fate, only to make surviving it almost as bad. Like a young man emerging alive from an almost certainly fatal auto accident, only to find his closest friend dead at the scene, and himself facing a prison sentence for his negligence. Palmer Cray believes he and his family are doomed and blessed by sloppy luck. He accepts it and perhaps embraces it. Raymond L. Atkins’s novel Sweetwater Blues follows Palmer through ten penitent years of his young life in the town and prison of Sweetwater, Georgia.

Sweetwater Blues (Mercer University Press, 2014, 340 pages, $18.00 paperback) is Atkins’s fourth novel. Raymond L. Atkins is a professor of English at Georgia Northwestern Technical College and member of the Creative Writing faculty at Reinhardt University.

Something about this novel spoke to me. Reading it was like meeting a stranger and finding out we grew up just miles from each other and knew all the same places, or passed through some significant shared experience, like being in the military or working at the same place, even if separated by time. It’s a kinship almost. Possibly it is Atkins’s slow description of life in Sweetwater, even through the thoughts of an inmate remembering the town. It takes me back to my own youth in a small Southern town, where everybody knew me and my whole family, and years passed around us all like water flowing around rocks in a creek bed.

There is a charming humor about the voice of Atkins’s writing that brings to mind Twain or Faulkner. But there is a pace to it that makes it enjoyable in a different way. It’s a walk through the scenery, not hurried or even brisk. It’s more of a saunter or a mosey. It’s not belly-laughing humor, but a chuckling look at what just is and maybe always was. Like this description of funeral arrangements for one of Palmer’s friends:

Otis Lee had gone to visit Genuine Owen not long after receiving his diagnosis and prognosis, and over a quart jar of corn liquor and a pair of Swisher Sweets they had hammered out the pertinent details of his eternal sleep. He had wanted to be buried at the junkyard, under The Death Car with his father, but Genuine had informed him that, lamentably, due to town ordinances that had been passed almost immediately after that original automotive interment, this would not be possible (308).
Otis Lee and his demented wife are two of the key characters that bring out the medicinal qualities of humor in this book. Another is Cheddar, Palmer’s cousin and cell mate, a life-long professional prisoner whose main problem is his wife “Bay-Annette”. As readers we laugh, even if we feel a little guilty about it, and that makes it easier to deal with the heavy issues of prison, betrayal, and the end of life.

Sweetwater Blues is a sweet read whose literary value sneaks up on the reader, taps him on the shoulder, and introduces itself with a friendly smile. I shall read more of Mr. Atkins’s work and I look forward to his next novel with great anticipation.