Jordan Harper’s heart-pounding debut novel, She Rides Shotgun, opens with a chilling introduction to “Crazy Craig” Hollington, a lifer in solitary confinement in California’s Supermax Pelican State Prison, where he is held in a specially built cell “where the lights were on for twenty-four hours a day (and) he couldn’t own anything firmer than a Q-tip.”
Despite his confinement Hollington still manages to run his white supremacist drug gang, Aryan Steel, issueing orders through a clandestine system of “kites,” coded messages on scraps of paper swung from cell to cell on strings.
Hollington is Godlike in his isolation. Harper begins five paragraphs describing Harrington’s reach from solitary confinement with the echoing incantatory phrases: “He had men for a mouth…He had men for blood…He had men for feet..He had men for eyes…”
And then, ”He had men for hands…Addresses were compiled. Plans made. Weapons secured. Blood pacts sealed. His will be done.”
His latest edict is a death warrant (or a “greenlighting”) against Nate McClusky, his estranged wife, Avis, and his 11-year-old daughter, Polly.
Nate is being released from a different prison after a five-year stint. He has turned down an offer (that is really more of a command) to work for Aryan Steel on the outside. He also kills Hollington’s brother Chuck in the process, after Chuck tries to stab him.
Harper’s description of the murder is blunt, visceral and physically alive and again hypnotic in its repetition of Chuck’s name:
“The shank came out of nowhere. Nate grabbed the knife-wrist. His other hand grabbed Chuck’s billy-goat beard. He put his foot behind Chuck’s. He twisted his hips. He slammed Chuck onto the floor. Chuck’s skull thocked against the concrete. He followed Chuck down. He drove his knee into Chuck’s liver. He bent Chuck’s arm at the elbow. He pressed the shank point at the hollow of Chuck’s throat. Flesh dimpled at the shank’s point. One drop of blood bloomed.”
“Nate knew the smart thing was to let Chuck go. Leave him alive, dodge Aryan Steel for a week, and walk out a free man. He thought that was the smart play, kept thinking it even as he pushed the blade down into Chuck.”
She Rides Shotgun is a literary thriller in the mold of James Ellroy’s urban noir nightmares or Cormac McCarthy’s morally complex bloodbaths. It’s main themes are loyalty and sacrifice and the thrilling rush of violence that never leaves you free once its power is unleashed.
Nate is too late to save his wife and her new partner. He more or less abducts Polly from her school and together with her he sets out hoping to do enough damage to the Aryan Steel gang that they will rescind the “greenlight.” He doesn’t really know Polly, having been locked up for half her life, but he knows that he will die trying to save her.
Polly is a fascinating and well drawn character. She’s a friendless introvert with a high IQ and a vivid imagination. She likes to think that she is so different because she’s from Venus.
Her best friend is a tattered teddy bear that she makes act out the emotions she can’t express herself. “It didn’t matter the bear wasn’t real,” she thinks. “It only mattered that he was true.”
Harper has chosen the difficult task of letting Nate harden Polly while she softens him, without it being sentimental or unbelievable. He shows their evolution through tiny details, smiles that almost appear, a flash of something in a glance, or words unspoken but understood.
When Polly first sees Nate at the school she is petrified. She wants to call for help but doesn’t. He appears almost supernatural to her.
“Her dad didn’t look like he belonged there with the other parents, who all had soft parent bodies and soft parent eyes. He had a face carved out of pebbled rock and tattoos all over, the kind of stuff the boys in her class drew on the backs of their notebooks, dragons and eagles and men with axes. His muscles seemed so big and sharply drawn it was like he was missing his skin, like the tattoos were inked right into the muscle.”
The novel’s 48 brief chapters are told from the perspectives of different characters — mostly Nate and Polly, but also a driven Korean-American detective who is on their trail, a corrupt rural sheriff, some Aryan Steel goons and a woman who helps Nate and Polly even though she is deeply enmeshed with the gang that is trying to kill them.
The pacing is steady and propulsive, the descriptions crisp and shocking and the twists are clever and seem almost inevitable.
I intend to go and read Harper’s 2015 short story collection, Love and Other Wounds, and I look forward to whatever he writes next.
(For reasons beyond my grasp, She Rides Shotgun is published in the UK with the humdrum title A Lesson in Violence.)
She Rides Shotgun by Jordan Harper, Ecco (HarperCollins) 272pp.