Friday, 25 November 2011

Book Review | A Single Shot by Matthew F. Jones

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Anyone's life can change in an instant. In Matthew F. Jones's acclaimed novel, one man's world is overturned with a single shot.

Trespassing on what was once his family's land, John Moon hears a rustle in the brush and fires. But instead of the deer he was expecting, he finds the body of a young woman, killed by his stray bullet. A terrible dilemma is made worse when he stumbles upon her campground - and the piles of drugs and money concealed there.

Moon makes his choice: he hides the corpse, and takes the cash. His decision will have consequences he can neither predict or control.


"The buck should have died in the pines from a single shot," (p.11) opines former farmer John Moon, hunting illegally on the estate that would have been his had not his father squandered it away in his last days. But no such luck. John has only managed to wing the deer, and when it runs, fearful of what might happen if it's found, bled out, he gives chase, tracking the buck to an abandoned quarry, where a sudden noise and a flash of colour startles him into firing a second slug.

Only later does John understand what he's done. For the moment, he

...picks up his shotgun from the grass-and-weed-covered gravel, starts to cock it, then, changing his mind, wraps both hands around the barrel, hoists the butt like a post-hole digger above the deer's head, and brings it forcefully down. The deer's skull collapses like a rotten vegetable. The buck groans once, for several seconds twitches again, then lies still. Placing the gun on the ground, John thinks it shouldn't have come to this. (p.11)

Finally he turns to survey the unintended consequences of his second shot, laying splayed on the forest floor: the terrible wreckage of what was only moments ago a runaway taking refuge in the quarry. "She is maybe sixteen, with crystal-blue eyes, blossom-shaped clumps of freckles on both cheeks, a small space between her upper incisors where a piece of gum or chewable candy is lodged. The clump of blond hair is a ponytail. John looks up at the sky. It looks just as it did five minutes before. He can't figure out how that can be." (p.13)

Knowing full well that this is an accident he will not be able to explain to anyone's satisfaction - not even his own - John, ever the practical man, hides the girl's body. In so doing, he finds a sackful of cash; ill-gotten gains, he reasons. Money from a robbery or a drug deal. Why else would the girl have hidden out here in the sticks?

With nothing left to lose, John takes the money and runs. He will find, however, that he has a great deal left to lose. His health... his estranged wife and child... perhaps even his life. Because the girl may not have been alone in the forest after all.

So begins A Single Shot, a short, sharp shock of a country noir novel come at long last to the UK, fully fifteen years since its much ballyhooed-about publication in America. If anyone can explain to me why in the Sam hell it took so long for this harrowing yet elegant specimen to touch down, I'd be much obliged.

In any event, the shattering impact of A Single Shot - we might as well call it blunt force trauma - seems to me not at all diminished by the decade and a half it's spent in transit. A story very much in the mode of Deliverance, and reminiscent of the work of Daniel Woodrell (who wrote Winter's Bone, and not coincidentally introduces this text), A Single Shot is narrated entirely by its protagonist, the flustered, blustery murderer John Moon. Moreover, his is a tale told in the present tense from first to last, which bestows upon events such excruciating immediacy as to make the reader feel as anxious, as endangered, as this drunken hunter, now hunted.

At a level deeper than conscious comprehension, John is thinking that the apparent palpability of words, acts, the whole process of human interchange, is a sham. He is mindful, though, only of his physical distress. His trembling extremities. His palpitating heart. (p.171)

Matthew F. Jones' belated third novel is an unbearably tense affair, at times, and all piss and vinegar and pornography - to wit: be warned that there's a whole lot of sex herein - when on rare occasion lives (innocent or otherwise) are not knowingly at stake. A Single Shot is not in truth a very likeable book, but from the first of its seven chapters - each of which corresponds to a single day of a single week in the life of poor, put-upon Moon - one becomes so swept up in the heady momentum of things, which go from bad to worse to oh-God-made-it-stop in short order, that there is nary a moment to stop and consider the withered lilies: the disgust and deep discomfort that are A Single Shot's stock in trade.

Black as pitch but beautiful in its terrible, wondrous way, A Single Shot is a distressing but unputdownable evening's reading sure to stay with one long after the lights have gone out. The movie is of course due sometime in 2012, and I expect it'll be tremendous. Thanks be that we have this chance to see what all the fuss has been about before then.


A Single Shot
by Matthew F. Jones

UK and US Publication: September 2011, Mulholland Books

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