As a proud Arkansan, I eagerly anticipate any new book set in my home state. Lately, except for the good work done by Eli Cranor and Kelly J. Ford, the literary world does not often see the plight of my state's people on the page. So when I saw Steve Weddle had published The County Line earlier this month, I rushed to purchase a copy.
Set during the Great Depression sounding like O Brother Where Art Thou? meets Bonnie and Clyde, Weddle's tale of Cottonmouth Tomlin, a man returning home from the Honduran banana plantations to find himself soon embroiled in a world of gangsters and crime overrunning his county, The County Line promised a lot. The blurbs praised the story. Everything I like in a novel seemed present, so I sat down late Monday evening and dug in.
I should have gone shopping with my mother-in-law.
From the outset, it's evident that The County Line suffers from an overpopulation of characters, under-researched historical details, and frustrating dialogue. Weddle's novel is so full of names and obscure secondary characters that the reader needs a flow chart to understand the characters' connections and relations. Coupling that with an odd choice to overly use indirect dialogue instead of letting the characters speak their words makes the book jarring. While indirect dialogue can be useful, it cannot be the sole means of writing speech on a page. Weddle overly relies on this technique giving us such sparkling examples of conversations that go something like this example off the top of my head:
“I saw John Smith at the store today," Joe said. Ronnie asked if John still had the yapping dog. Stanley said he didn't know John had a dog. Joe said he did. Ronnie and Stanley shrugged.
“He was carrying a sack of potatoes and had a pint of whiskey in his jeans pocket,” Joe said. Stanley said he didn't know John still drank. Ronnie said something about John’s relationship with his mother. Stanley said he remembered and asked what kind of dog John had. Ronnie said a cur. Stanley said he never liked dogs.
After enduring 200 pages of this, I could not continue. The final straw was the egregious inaccuracy of including Old Rip Van Winkle bourbon, which did not exist during the era in which the story is set. While seemingly minor, this lapse in authenticity finally killed the overall credibility of the narrative.
Weddle has committed one of writing's cardinal sins. While he credits known Arkansas scholars and a few historical documents, I do not have to speculate long to conclude that he didn't spend enough time in my state to accurately portray its people. The dialect is wrong, and the vocabulary is not authentic. It reads as if I decided to write a book about a group of Italian women arriving in Russia and deciding to start a textile mill. No matter how hard I try, I cannot do that. You shouldn't try it either.
This brought to mind an interesting discourse I saw online the same day I began the book. I do not know if Sir John Cosmos placed this discourse in my brain on purpose or if it appeared serendipitously while I was reading, but it holds true. On Monday, David Joy wrote a long and thoughtful post on Twitter about how important place is when one writes. He wrote that getting the setting and place wrong was akin to the most grievous of writerly sins and should be held in the same contempt. He went as far as to say that he would not be comfortable setting a story in the next county over from where he lives. I have to agree. My wife and I are from the same county, but we have vastly different vocabularies, traditions, and quirks. I am from western Poinsett County, and she is from central Poinsett. The folks on the east side of the county are different, still. Weird, even - to me and her at least. My point is you cannot authentically replicate the lives of people on the page without living among or at least having a rudimentary working knowledge of their speech and customs. Doing so breaks the contract with the reader and offers them a glimpse behind the curtain of “the great lie.”
Writers lie for a living. We are allowed to because the readers trust us to produce a piece of fiction, a known and accepted form of lying, that suspends reality and fools them into believing that what they are reading is fact when they KNOW it is fiction. This is the magic of the written word. It is strung together in a concoction of prose, rhythm, tone, dialogue, and authenticity to produce something so convincing that the reader chooses to read and believe a lie for fun. In failing to do so, Weddle's book falls flat and reveals the pitfalls of, at best, not doing one's due diligence and, at worst, not typing Old Rip Van Winkle into Google ONE DAMN TIME!
In sum, The County Line is a fun read if you can get over the issues I've highlighted in this review. Gangsters, moonshine, the FBI, kidnapping, good female characters -- it's all there. In fact, I have been pissed for two days that I was cheated out of such a good premise for a novel.
So where am I with the novel now? Good question. I will not throw it away. I will, surprising to many of you, recommend it to others to use as a teaching text to highlight the importance of getting everything right. We can show students that to capture the essence of a place one must do meticulous research, use authentic dialogue, and have a keen understanding of a region's culture and nuances. Because if you don’t you can produce something less than palatable, something not quite right. Or worse, like Weddle, you could lose for good a reader like me willing to follow you on your literary journey.
DAN RUSSELL is a writer. His work has appeared in The Arkansas Review, Cowboy Jamboree, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, The Tributary, Close to the Bone, Poverty House, and You Might Need to Hear This. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Concordia University-St. Paul and is the host of The Fair to Middlin' Podcast. He and his wife and family live in Arkansas atop Crowley’s Ridge. His debut novel, Poor Birds, will be published by Cowboy Jamboree Press in 2025.