The grand southern novel may have died with Pat Conroy a few years ago, but there will always be somebody willing to give it a shot. Recently, that somebody is Greg Iles in his latest novel “Cemetery Road.”
Iles has been writing for quite a few years and while he doesn’t have Stephen King or John Grisham levels of sales or fame, he has built a reputation for being able to put together a good thriller.
With “Cemetery Road” he tries combine that thriller writing with the way southern novels used to be written, stuffed full of secrets and shame and sin and other words that begin with S. Does he succeed? Let’s take a look.
Marshall McEwan is the protagonist of the book, a native of Bienville, Mississippi, who fled the town at 18 after his older brother drowned while trying save him in the Mississippi River. Believing his father blames him for his brother’s death, Marshall can’t bring himself to stay in his hometown.
Marshall has the news business running through his blood as he grew up with his family owning the local newspaper, so after getting a journalism degree he heads for Washington D.C. where many years of work and dues paying eventually lands him a role as a top talking head on political TV shows, a cherished spot in the age of Trump, but his father is dying and he finds himself heading home to Bienville.
Coming home isn’t what he expects. He thinks he will find a dying southern town, one of many, but instead he finds a town on the verge of rebirth thanks to a giant Chinese paper factory located in an area that might or might not be a site with Native American artifacts buried under the soil.
The paper mill had the gears greased by a local entity known as The Poker Club, a bunch of old, white men with more money than the rest of town combined, but being your typical evil men, they can never have enough or be satisfied.
Still, everybody, including Marshall who is now running the family newspaper, is willing to let it slid so the town can have an influx of jobs and new businesses who will want all that new job money spent in their stores.
But then a man Marshall considered a second father after his brother died is killed just as it looked like he was about to show the location of the paper mill is being built on sacred land, and all bets are off.
In addition to trying to figure out who killed his surrogate father, Marshall is also having an affair with a woman he’s loved since high school and she has promised to leave her husband, he’s dealing with his father slowly dying and like anybody in the paper business, he’s trying to figure out how to keep a print business going in the age of digital.
Everything in the story eventually ties together, but it takes a while to get there. Iles sends Marshall back to the past several times to explain current day events and soon is piling one gigantic secret after another on top of each other until you start to feel a little suffocated.
Everybody has one of these big secrets and you may find yourself saying, “Really? The other 10 things you did to this character isn’t enough? Now you have to add this?”
Iles is obviously from the south and while a lot here is probably unique to Mississippi, there are things all southerners will recognize, such as people who are successful only being that way because of who their parents are and the belief that some people are just better than others.
The bad guys are your standard southern blowhards who cheat on their wives nonstop, but believe if said wife even looks at another man, he has the legal right to kill her.
Pretty much everybody here has something wrong with them and that’s probably the main strength of the novel. Like real life, you have to look for the worst thing to know who to cheer against.
The ending is a little ridiculous and kind of feels like it was meant for another book, but most things are resolved, though you won’t be left happy with what happens. And that’s more southern for a novel than anything else.