Gone South by Robert R. McCammon

Standalone Book - No Series

Flooded by memories, poisoned by the deadly fallout of Agent Orange, and desperate for work, Dan Lambert kills a man in a moment of blind fear and fury. It is an act he cannot excuse--a mistake that will change his life forever. Now Dan is on the run, heading south toward the Louisiana bayous. On his trail are police officers and bounty hunters, including the most memorable and bizarre team ever paired in modern fiction: Pelvis Eisley, an Elvis impersonator of the worst kind, and Flint Murtaugh, a fastidious, ruthluss loner and freak-show refugee who carries the body of his unformed twin brother on his side.

As Dan heads down into the swampland in search of his own salvation, he meets a young woman who is on a similar journey. Like Dan, Arden Halliday bears a great burden--a disfiguring purple birthmark that blankets half her face. Wounded by the stares, by the pity and revulsion, she is making her way into the bayous to search of the Bright Girl--a legendary faith healer who will rid her of her birthmark and her suffering. Though on separate missions, Arden and Dan come to respect each other's quest for freedom, for a touch of simple kindness in a world grown cruel. Thrown together by circumstance, bound by a loyalty stranger than love, they set off on a journey of relentless suspense and impassioned discovery...an odyssey over dark, twisting road and waterways into the beautiful and mysterious depths of the human heart.

“It was hell's season, and the air smelled of burning children”

Returning Vietnam Vets had it rough, as Dan Lambert is apt to tell you. They weren’t always welcomed home with open arms or steady employment. The flashbacks that destroyed fleeting families didn’t help. After Dan loses his cool and temporarily “goes south” at the bank, he’s now on the run with no end (at first) in sight. Dodging two unique bounty hunters and meeting up with a young woman aiming to change the face of her future, the story keeps running all four of these main characters into more quirky, minor ones.

McCammon wrote on his website in an Introductory Letter that this book is the story of a journey of several main characters, so even though we start in Dan’s head, the book doesn’t reside there alone. The premise is that four characters start out in dark paths and continue on treacherous roads until they possibly find a light. The author did clever things with this, not only telling a tale but sharing a journey. Spirituality and God are frequent, especially once Arden is met and the Bright Girl legend unfolds. The ending is one of peace and redemption of sorts, which helps soothe the reader’s soul after experiencing a decent percentage of grimness and tragedy.

The author doesn’t keep it all dark and unfair, though - we get ample humor through interactions of Flint (and Clint) with Pelvis. The two were funny as soon as they walked on the page, and the funniest scenes were mainly through these two trying to get along and find their bounty. While Dan was the more traditional Vietnam Vet with a conscience, Flint and Pelvis were two outcasts of a completely different mold.

I always dug stories told with “freaks” - I hesitate to use the word - but Flint (with Clint) is the epitome of the term and he even describes himself thus throughout the book. He was more frustrating than anything at first but I slowly warmed up to him as he started relaxing and opening his mind. It’s debatable who had the rougher deal when it comes to him and Arden. With the young woman, her face is revealed for all to see and judge, but Flint can at least pretend unless someone gets too close or his shirt is removed.

Pelvis was, in a way, the happiest acting while being a sad case. Him and Mama had a long journey of their own and I can’t even accurately describe the sheer joy of this character on the page through this review alone. It’s really something you have to read for yourself.

One could think he threw in such unusual characters for humor effect - and that’s true - but also I think it was a nod to the times with the obsession of Elvis and having to move on since the singer was dead, as Dan had to move on from something he couldn’t (the memories of the war). Flint had to move on from his memories of being a carnie and find himself peacefully. Their quirkiness came in handy for saving their hides more than once, especially the shock of Pelvis walking in and looking like Elvis. Flint’s life was saved more than once due to this, but Flint repays the favor along with Clint at the end.

It’s a strange book, and it’s awesome.

 You can’t get more serious and tragic than war and the affects of Agent Orange and broken families, nor as bizarre of some of the situations surrounding Flint, but you get charm with Pelvis and hope with Arden to balance it all out.

The villains are horrors during the climb and climax - one sad scene we could have done without - but they sum up the demented South Bayou feel the author was trying to put to. While Down South may mean going insane in Vietnam, it means going dead in the deep, southern U.S.

It’s not an intense book in terms of any creepiness or much suspense, but it’s emotionally wrenching while being charming, dark while being hopeful, and a great delight overall to read. McCammon’s beautiful writing style enhances.

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