The thrill of speed on a blacktop wasteland

SA Cosby’s thriller about a man obsessed with cars and forced back into the world of crime offers a layered indictment of America for those who do not have the luxury of options.

When reading African-American writer SA Cosby’s novel Blacktop Wasteland, about a diamond robbery gone awry, two facts are immediately apparent: the novelist – or his main character – loves cars, and he derives evident pleasure from fashioning fantastic metaphors. On the fourth page, for example, Cosby writes: “When he started the car, the engine sounded like a pride of angry lions. Vibrations travelled up from the motor through the steering wheel. He tapped the gas a few times. The lions became dragons.” 

It is the kind of phrasing that makes one laugh, but on second reading it sounds a tad corny, though not any less enjoyable. 

Blacktop Wasteland, published last year, is Cosby’s third novel after Brotherhood of the Blade – The Invitation and My Darkest Prayer. It is followed by Razorblade Tears, which was released on 6 July, the blurb for which reads: “A Black father. A white father. Two murdered sons. A quest for vengeance.” It is seemingly an exploration of homosexuality and retribution.  

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The novel begins somewhere in Appalachian country in Virginia, in the deep American South, as Beauregard (Bug) Montage is out at an illegal night-time race. Montage, the novel’s chief protagonist, is an African-American car fanatic and excellent driver who can handle the wheel as if the spirit of the late Brazilian driver Ayrton Senna himself were on him. Montage’s wife Kia, with whom he has two sons, once told him that he felt about cars the way “most people felt about puppies”. 

The reason he is at an illegal race is because his car workshop is being undercut by a new competitor and bills are piling up. His truculent mother is a payment away from being kicked out of a home, his daughter needs tuition fees for college, his son’s teeth need some work and he is behind on the rent for his workshop.  

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Montage’s financial situation is reflective of what is going on in America and the Red Hills county he calls home. Since 2008, when the global recession kicked in, the state has been in decline: there are empty buildings, abandoned factories – “forgotten monoliths to a lost civilisation” – and unemployment is rising. 

But all this collapse, felt especially in the African-American community, is in the background. What drives the narrative is a man enamoured with cars: “The real thing, the thing most people don’t want to talk about, is how you drive. If you drive like you scared, you gonna lose. If you drive like you don’t want to rebuild the whole engine, you gonna lose … Drive like you fucking stole it.” 

As sometimes happens to people with that skill, Montage used to be of interest to people in the criminal underworld who needed to get from point A to point B quickly and without a trace. However, he is a reformed man – or at least he thinks so – and doesn’t want to be a part of that world anymore, but those bills keep coming. 

Temptation comes knocking

Suddenly a man from his dark past, Ronnie Sessions, with whom he has done a botched job before and whom he doesn’t trust, comes with a tempting proposal. There is a jeweller in town whose diamonds they could raid. Worth around $250 000 on the black market, Montage’s share – about $80 000 – will be enough cash to settle his debts. 

When he confides in those near him that he is about to go on a job with Sessions, who is white, they are all sceptical. When he mentions the job in vague terms to Kia, she, suspecting recidivism, quips: “Baby, nobody gets you to drive their aunty to the store. So don’t talk to me like I’m dumb. You wouldn’t even be thinking about it if it wasn’t something big. And that means it’s dangerous.”   

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Kia suggests that he sell the car he got from his father, a career underworld figure who disappeared and is thought to be dead – “a ghost without a grave” – but who makes spectral appearances in the novel. There is no way he would sell that car, a kind of heirloom from an absent father he adores. 

Montage, like his father Antony, is in his element when he is driving at mad speeds. Out on the road is where he excels. On the job with Sessions, as his partners dash for the car with the loot, he feels an almost Zen-like equanimity: “Some people were meant to pound the keys on a piano or strum the strings of a guitar. A car was his instrument and he was performing a symphony … he knew no matter what happened he would never feel more alive, more present than he felt at this moment. There was truth in that idea but also sadness.”  

Land of the not-so-free

There is sadness because Montage should be more than a driver-for-hire for stupid and inept jewel thieves. For at its core, Blacktop Wasteland isn’t just about diamond heists, violence and driving like you stole it. More than that, it is an indictment of America, of how the welfare of the Black minority is an afterthought. 

The novel invites us to consider why a loving family man such as Montage, who was told at a juvenile facility that he had an “eidetic memory” – what is sometimes called a photographic memory – and has an incredible facility for mental arithmetic, has to engage in crime with half-imbeciles such as Sessions to cover the holes in his finances. “What [the juvenile facility counsellor] Mr Skorzeny didn’t understand, what he couldn’t understand, was that boys like Beauregard didn’t have the luxury of options … For boys like Beauregard, college was the stuff of dreams. Mr Skorzeny might as well have told him to go to Mars.” 

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It is a lesson he is trying to impart to his son Javon, who is growing reluctant about pursuing his studies. “You see this grease on my hands?” Beauregard tells his son in a touching father-son moment. “I’ve washed them five times today and it still won’t come all the way off. Don’t get me wrong, there is no shame working with your hands for a living. But for me, it was the only choice.”

Despite the heavy price that has come because of the colour of Montage’s skin, the novel is self-consciously aware and proud of its Black identity – phrases like “dark obsidian skin” and “coal black skin” serve to underscore the embrace of this heritage. 

I sometimes read Blacktop Wasteland way after midnight and often worried that, at its tensest moments, which abound, I was getting so much adrenaline that it would have kept me up until daybreak. And so I would stop reading the novel described by that old master, American novelist Walter Mosley, as “an intoxicating thrill of a ride”. Blacktop Wasteland is a compelling read by a writer whose work I will be looking out for.

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