Book Review : Rob Hart - South Village (2016)
South Village is the third novel of American author Rob Hart. His recurring character Ash McKenna, a foul-mouthed New Yorker with a bad temper, previously appeared in New Yorked and City of Rose, which I have both previously reviewed here. Hart has one of the most powerful narrative voices in hardboiled fiction which is best displayed in his short stories, which I encourage you to check out. I've had a well-documented troubled history with the Ash McKenna novels, though and I expected South Village to be somewhat of a moment of truth in our relationship. While I appreciate the understated complexity of the character, I must admit not finding him very sympathetic or interesting. So, what did I think of the third Ash McKenna novel?
Well, keep reading!
Following the events of City of Rose, Ash McKenna is laying low in a hippie commune in Georgia while preparing his departure for Prague. What was meant to be a well-needed break from violence and tragedy went south when a man named Crusty Pete is found dead after falling from a rope bridge. Leader of the commune and old friend Tibo tasks Ash to investigate on Pete's suspicious death and restore order in the camp. It doesn't work like that when Ash McKenna is around, though. He has a knack for stumbling upon the wrong things and the wrong time and it's no different in South Village. Turns out Tibo's seemingly peaceful and welcoming community harbors fucked up secrets.
Ash McKenna is a man adrift since the murder of his ex-girlfriend Chell in New Yorked. It was very much over between them when it happened and Ash was being a stereotypical obsessed ex, yet the occurrence left him feeling powerless and inadequate. He is psychologically enslaved to Chell's death like Lawrence Block's Matthew Scudder is enslaved to Estrellita Rivera's accidental shooting, with the only difference being that he isn't guilty of anything because he wasn't actually there. So, it leaves Ash looking for people to protect like a king without a kingdom in order to try and gain control over that traumatic event. But it's not the others Ash needs to fix, it's himself. South Village is the first novel of the series where survival is the main concern. Trapped in the woods with dangerous idealists, Ash is confronted to himself (and notably his rampant alcoholism) and I thought it was a welcome change of pace from the white knight illusions he was fostering for himself.
Another thing I appreciated about South Village is the return to New Yorked's more cartoonish aesthetic. City of Rose was the better crafted novel of the two, yet it sacrificed some of its identity to a bleakness that is rather common in hardboiled novels. Rob Hart colourful imaginary is definitely back in South Village. While the mystery is takings its sweet time to unfold *, it packs an intoxicating mix of two-faced idealists, government paranoia and freakin' literary ciphers (yep!) for your reading pleasure. While Ash's schoolyard intimidation techniques and prepubescent tough guy schtick made me roll my eyes a fair amount of times here again, I thought South Village had interesting ideas about violence. What is violence by a mean to an end? Rob Hart highlighted Ash's purposelessness quite shrewdly: kicking everybody's ass doesn't have a point if you don't have principles to fight for.
So, there you have it. It's not the first time I feel lukewarm after reading an Ash McKenna novel, but the issue with them is getting clearer and clearer: it's Ash himself. I kind of don't like the guy. He's a selfish mess throwing himself at dangerous situations in order to reconcile himself with the trauma of his ex-girlfriend's death. And because violence gives him a strange sense of adequacy. I got nothing against tough guys. Telling another character you'll break his teeth his fine with me, except when you say stuff like that in a minor disagreement, you know? Then YOU come off as the asshole. I like Rob Hart's writing. I really do. I'm just running low on patience with this series, which I have given a fair shake to. I'm going to keep an eye on Hart's other project and I encourage you to. But I really feel like I'm done here. Connecting with Ash McKenna is crucial in order to enjoy the series and it's something I failed to do for the third time now.
* Pacing's always been a problem in the Ash McKenna novels. This one's no different.