By Craig Dowd
The only person in a child’s universe who looms larger than a parent is an absent one. While the former tenders a daily diet of love and mercy, the latter caters a bottomless buffet of wonder and strife. After all, few mysteries are as haunting as the mystery of inheritance. It’s a tragic irony that a deadbeat dad can destroy a life without ever having nurtured it.
But a recent ex-con does precisely that in Jordan Harper’s debut novel, She Rides Shotgun, when he kidnaps his daughter—a gifted middle-schooler with “gunfighter eyes” named Polly—and not because he misses her. The problem, which drives this outlaw fable to its grisly finale, is that he brings his sins with him and the penance is steep.
When you practice the craft and sullen art of armed robbery, as Nate does, danger is an occupational hazard, yet it’s never followed him home. That changes, though, when Nate and Polly are thrust into a violent game of tag with the toughest white boys in California.
Turns out, Nate declined an offer to work for this band of bigots by killing his prospective manager; an email wouldn’t suffice. Now the Aryan Steel wants to pulverize Nate’s broken family, and few gangs are as proactive in curbing defiance. One of its henchman has already murdered Polly’s mother and stepdad, and its various divisions are so ubiquitous they seem to have colonized the Golden State. It’s like a nightmarish episode of “Sons of Anarchy” or, perhaps, a faithful portrait of modern America.
She Rides Shotgun might sound like a morality tale in which a troubled man becomes a proper father—except Nate will never change. His world doesn’t value redemption, only strength. Its ebb and flow is determined by obsessive men who follow arbitrary codes. Lucky for us, the pages of this book don’t so much turn as blow over as Nate struggles to counter their brutality—to save his daughter, sure, but also himself.
It is, however, an odyssey of sorts through the “dirty white boy” underworld of California, stained with humanity, told in tabloid prose shaved to the bone with no razor bumps. Transgressive, feverish and expertly crafted, She Rides Shotgun is also the most stylish crime novel of 2017.
Nate is one of those guys born under a bad sign who broke the social contract before he popped his first pimple. His muscles are so defined “it’s like he’s missing his skin.” And his only role model—an older brother—perished in a motorcycle chase on the six o’clock news. It’s no surprise he lets Polly and her teddy bear join him on a series of suicide missions designed to hit 2 the Steel where it hurts—its wallet—and hopefully clear their names. What is surprising is that Polly clings to this role like bark to a tree.
Her transformation from a pushover who wears a “loser’s slumped shoulders” into a “monster wearing little girl skin” would be chilling if it weren’t so entertaining. With a foul mouth, a steady hand and a hairdo the color of “watermelon meat,” she makes for a suitable bandit and behaves accordingly. In fact, she likes it more than anyone should:
“She lived for the moment you started the job to the moment it ended. It was like stepping out of a rocket ship to take a space walk.”
As a wordsmith, Harper excels when his leads are busy ransacking nightclubs, chop shops and stash houses. The pair is “like something from a country song,” one man marvels; the vibe, however, is strictly Wu-Tang. Readers will be reminded of Captain America cracking Hitler on the jaw as Nate and Polly whip so many pasty posteriors red. We also learn how to clean bullet wounds, taste the purest dope and send mail on “kites.” Dense with minutiae, She Rides Shotgun is a nerd’s paradise, if you’re a crime fiction nerd.
What’s most impressive about this novel, though, is not its structure, in which chapters (and bodies) fall like dominoes, or its small yet fierce heroine, whose guile disarms even the most vicious hellhounds on her trail. Instead, its lasting achievement is how deftly its author manages to elude cliche, for Harper is traveling a well-trodden path.
The story is a modern update of Lone Wolf and Cub, the Japanese comic series about a disgraced samurai and his son exacting revenge on a pack of crooked lords. It’s a premise that anchors so many films—such as “Road to Perdition,” “Leon,” and most famously “Paper Moon”—it’s practically a genre. Though Harper has served hard time in network television, he shuns its banalities by sampling his influences freely, cackling as his characters plunge into a Tarantino script they’re unlikely to survive. The wrinkles he tattoos into this stock narrative are dark and forbidding: reunions pass in hot-wired cars; a hands-on tutorial in grappling counts as fatherly advice; and when the smoke settles it’s difficult to say if anyone’s station has improved.
In She Rides Shotgun, as in the work of Camus and Cain and Ellroy, where sentences aren’t exactly hardboiled but baked to a crisp, their edges seared off, everybody gets burned. What matters, as Bukowski said, is how well you walk through the fire.
While some fare better than others, it’s fun watching all of them squirm. After things get so desperate Polly is the one pulling the trigger, Nate decides to end their crusade. He cuts a deal with the Mexican Mafia to kill a cop so dirty he’d make Harvey Keitel’s “Bad Lieutenant” blush; in exchange, they’ll extinguish the green light trained on Nate’s family. It’s a terrible deal, yet Nate heads to the border anyway—with Polly in pursuit.
Someday this old-school showdown in the desert will look beautiful on the big screen. But for now we have this taut, soulful book about the mystery of inheritance. How we don’t get to pick 3 the traits our parents leave us. How their choices can change our lives forever. And how free will, though problematic, is never a “crock.”
Maybe Nate will ride off into the sunset. Maybe he’ll make it to that “outlaw resort” where he hopes to retire. We’ll never really know, and I’m not sure it matters.
“It’s the best part of not being real,” Polly says about her teddy bear. “It means he can’t die.”
There’s a reason we respect legends—and why they persist. Their influence thrives on ambiguity. And they can come for us when we least expect it, telling us to hop in.
Craig Dowd‘s writing has recently appeared in The Galway Review and Unbroken Journal. Previously, he was a longtime jazz columnist for the triCityNews, a weekly newspaper. Born and raised in New Jersey, he now lives with his family in Brooklyn, NY.