For me, the hardest books to review are the ones that don’t elicit a passionate response, whether it’s “I loved it” or “I hated it.”
It’s even more difficult when the author in question has written other books that I really enjoyed. Such is the case with Nate Southard, a man whose hard-bitten prose I’ve enjoyed in the past, but whose latest short novel Down left me underwhelmed.
Down, released earlier this year by Sinister Grin Press, follows the travails of the rock band The Frequency Brothers. The band is in the midst of its latest tour and is poised on the edge of superstardom – which, if you’ve read any Rolling Stone article on any band on the edge of superstardom, you know means they are dealing with plenty of inner turmoil. There is drug use and infidelity and insecurity a-plenty, and the pressure is mostly felt by their long-suffering but capable manager, Potter. Potter also has issues at home, and he’s looking forward to this small break in their tour schedule to give him time to deal with his family.
It’s all rock-and-roll business as usual, until their plane goes down.
The crash is a harrowing experience that Southard skillfully juxtaposes with glimpses of the band as they take the stage for their last show, a sold-out gig in Austin, Texas. It’s a breathless first chapter that’s brimming with promise; unfortunately, once the plane is violently grounded, the story is grounded, too.
Southard is trying to put new twists on some old tropes in Down, and I’ll give him props for that all day long. There are some good ideas here, but what seems to be lacking is focus. There’s some kind of savage creature roaming the woods in which the band’s plane crash landed, and it’s picking off survivors one by one. That’s a story we’ve all heard a thousand times, but Southard manages to wring plenty of suspense and shock out of the premise. It’s only when some of the other elements come into play – a mysterious pit filled with human remains; weird, unearthly symbols carved into trees; the slow transformation of some of the survivors – that things get a bit muddy for me.
Southard is a strong enough writer to keep me entertained even when the I’m lukewarm on the plot. (Exhibit A: the line “…nausea kept grabbing him in a slick, wet fist….” which is such a perfect description of that feeling.) Down was not a chore to finish, as so many books are, but I don’t think it’s on par with much of what the author has already produced, and will produce in the future. I don’t know that I’ll ever revisit Down, but the next time something with Southard’s name appears I won’t hesitate to pick it up.