Book Review: Real Bad Things
With the follow-up to her award-winning debut novel "Cottonmouths," Kelly J. Ford has crafted a gritty and gravelly novel with unlikable characters doing unlikable things to and on behalf of one another. It's as if "August: Osage County" in deeper and darker ways with a thread of cyclical violence that seemingly impacts everyone who comes near it.
The setting is Maud Bottoms, Arkansas. Jane long ago escaped to Boston years after her confession to the murder of her stepfather Warren fell on deaf ears due to the absence of a body and no clear evidence that a crime had even occurred. However, a phone call from her long estranged mother Diane has revealed that Warren's body has been found and Jane has voluntarily returned home to face the consequences of her alleged long ago actions.
Jane's return home is met with abusive derision by her mother, wariness by her brother Jason, and a weird mixture of emotions by former girlfriend Georgia Lee.
Ford doesn't mess around here. There are no cathartic moments of healing to be found and no warm and fuzzy characters to toss light into this darkness. Instead, we get a relentlessly harrowing depiction of generational trauma and the lengths that some will go to in order to protect it and perpetuate it.
We also get the lengths some have to go to in order to simply survive it.
It's virtually impossible that "Real Bad Things" will be for everyone, though it hints of wildly popular authors like Gillian Flynn and Patricia Highsmith while forging a voice that is distinctly Kelly J. Ford. You may not like it, and I can even say I didn't, but you won't likely forget it.
The story centers around Jane's return to the town that made her and the people who mostly stayed and continued to be formed by it. Certain touches ring both absurd and true - from a smalltown gossip rag that makes the NextDoor app look like a Mister Rogers newsletter to local cops who are both incredibly inept and yet occasionally strike with precision and insight.
I suppose that Jane is the most sympathetic character, a woman in her 40's clearly formed by the traumas of her past and a woman whose inexplicable confession makes no sense even to those closest to her. She's abrasive and immensely flawed yet you can't help but think it's pretty miraculous she's even alive and functional.
Diane, on the other hand, is a ball of hate from the opening pages of "Real Bad Things." You sense that there's an ache somewhere deep inside her but the only way she soothes that ache is by inflicting the same level of ache on others.
Georgia Lee harbors her own secrets along with bitterness over Jane's sudden departure. Having grown up in a family where their worst fear seemed to be that the rumors about she and Jane were true, Georgia Lee's conflicted sense of self also masks a fiercely protective spirit.
Finally, there's Jason. In some ways, he's a pride of Diane and of Maud Bottoms, an MMA fighter who mostly keeps to himself and whose vulnerability draws out Jane's more maternal side.
Ford serves up a complex story here with twists and turns, some expected and some not so much. At times, the logic in "Real Bad Things" conflicts with itself there are mind-numbing choices made by nearly every character that seem almost too absurd to be true.
The ending, which I won't even hint of here, hurts not because it's entirely unexpected but because by the time you reach the final pages of "Real Bad Things" you've experienced the generational traumas these characters have gone through and you've realized that in some worlds happy endings simply don't exist.
Sometimes, things just end.
"Real Bad Things" is an immersive, character-driven story that is relentless in its portrayal of smalltown noir, cyclical violence, and the lengths we go to in order to survive the lives we've been given. Ford's narrative is unforgiving and uncompromising with nary a feel-good moment to be found here in lives that are as bleak as the eye of a twister as it barrels down.
Emotionally honest and utterly devastating in its detail, "Real Bad Things" is proof positive that "Cottonmouths" was no fluke and Kelly J. Ford knows how to spin a seriously suspenseful and unforgettable tale.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic