Echoes of the Fall by Hank Early
Book Review by Shane Douglas Keene
If someone were to tell me that I could only read one genre or sub-genre of fiction for the rest of my days two things would happen. One, I would be sad, because who wants to limit themselves like that? And two, it would be a choice made so easily as to not be a choice at all. Crime noir, particularly that of a rural variety, slips off the tip of my tongue as naturally and involuntarily as breathing these days. Up until the last four or five years, I didn’t really know there was such a thing in the world as this “rural noir” I’m speaking of. But then I picked up a book by Donald Ray Pollock titled The Devil All the Time, mistakenly assuming it was horror, and my whole outlook, my entire reading experience, changed instantly and permanently. That book so dominated my imagination and attention that I had to have more immediately. It’s a story of fucked up people doing fucked up things to each other, of poor people hurting poor people and society in general misunderstanding them altogether. In other words, it’s human. It’s real. It has those two most treasured qualities that have always drawn me to horror fiction: it’s dark and mean. It’s also bleak and so beautifully rendered as to make me wonder why the whole world isn’t singing its praises.
Since then, I’ve gone on to read the work of such luminaries as Daniel Woodrell, David Joy, Ron Rash, Tom Franklin, and many such others who I treasure and whose work will always have a place at my table. But if you pressed me to tell you who I felt was the single-most talented practitioner of the form right now, that answer would be just as natural and involuntary as my choice of genres. That person is Hank Early. Author of the breakout Earl Marcus series, Early was a revelation to me, a new and unexpected X factor in the crime fiction equation and one who made a fan of me with a single opening paragraph in the first book in the series, Heaven’s Crooked Finger. The books and the ongoing story threads that run through them just get better and more intriguing as the Marcus universe expands. This third book, Echoes of the Fall, comes in as the best of the bunch. And here’s the thing about that word, “expands.” More so than growing in length, or number of books, that’s exactly what this franchise does. Story threads resonate and ripple outward through the books, an ouroboros of intertwining narratives that form a cohesive whole when taken together.
In Echoes of the Fall, Earl Marcus comes home after an evening of drinking with Rufus Gribble to discover the body of a murdered young man in his yard. Knowing the animosity local law enforcement has toward him, he opts to hide the body and perform his own investigation. Gathering together what few tidbits of evidence he can find on the man’s corpse and in his car, Earl does what he’s become famous for. He grabs on like a redbone coonhound, refusing to let go until he’s shaken every last bit of information out, along the way stepping on some big toes, matching wits with dangerous men and at least one woman who’s even more deadly. He also manages to make some giant-sized mistakes, having the effect of putting his personal life in a tailspin and driving him even deeper into the bottle than we’ve previously seen. But while Earl is the protagonist and the story going on in the current day is centered around him, this is really Rufus Gribble’s story and Early does an amazing job fleshing this character out further than we’ve seen before, making him seem both lifelike and almost mythically tragic at the same time. If you hadn’t already fallen in love with this character, this book will make you do so if you have a heart at all.
One of the main things that draw me to stories like this is what tends to differentiate rural noir from other types of crime fiction. The pure poesy of the prose employed by Rash, Joy, and others is unique and it stands out not for a tendency towards purpleness so much as for these masterful authors’ ability to wield it without the purple. And Hank Early is one of the best, most eloquent of the bunch when it comes to painting vivid, breathtaking imagery on the canvas of his readers’ minds. His blatant passion for the English language rings out in passages that continue to resonate in your mind like distant bell tones somehow still there even after they’re gone.
“Rufus believed if something had been in one place long enough, if it had heard the rain and the thunder and the swelling of crickets and the lonesome night birds, that thing–be it house or fence or bone–became something else. That it too became part of these mountains’ great and secret history.”
And while that quote gives some credence to the claims that his work is reminiscent of the great Flannery O’Connor, the truth is, it’s pure Early when you get down to the bones of it. He has his own unique style, an ability to turn a phrase in a way that seems both quirky and at times astonishingly beautiful. He has what guitarists call a signature sound, an authorial voice that makes his work blatantly and obviously his. It’s one of my favorite things about his work, the one that brought me to him and that brings me back every time.
But that’s not the very best thing for me. That honor goes to what it should go to if an author does their job well. Characterization is key to any good story and Early is unmatched in his ability to draw natural, fucked up, sympathetic characters that make you want to keep reading. You have to know what happens to these people. And in a book where the supporting cast is as strong as Ronnie Thrash and Rufus Gribble, the protagonist has to be larger than life, to stand out and demand your attention and your empathy. And the author brings that to the table with extra helpings every time Earl Marcus shows his face in a scene. Even when he’s not there, he’s ever present in the story and never far from the forefront of your mind. He’s this colossal, supremely broken character who sometimes wallows in self-deconstruction, tearing his own life down–almost intentionally it seems–but somehow managing to find redemption along the way.
“I was afraid. Not of jumping and crushing my body against the bottom of the gap, but of falling and realizing too late that there was no bottom, that there was no end, that a man’s fall could last forever and redemption was just a whispered memory from a nearly forgotten dream.”
Reading Hank Early’s words, like those of Joe Lansdale or Cormac McCarthy, is an immensely fulfilling experience. You feel transported, almost as if you’re sitting around the fireplace listening to a grizzled master regale you with tall tales and flights of fancy. And that’s ultimately the thread that weaves the disparate pieces of the Earl Marcus franchise together. You’re in the hands of a master storyteller and while every book is its own story, each one is part of a much larger tapestry, an endeavor of epic proportions that keeps you rapt, imprisoned by the author’s sheer eloquence and ability to spin a yarn. It’s a testament to his ability that once you start reading Echoes of the Fall in earnest, it’s a safe bet you’ll be putting it back down soon, not because you won’t like it, but because you will have already finished it. I read all 350 pages in two exceptionally fast sittings, tearing through it with abandon and more than a small sense of awe at the sheer literary prowess of this amazing writer. For fans of great crime fiction, I won’t recommend a book with higher accolades this year than I do this one and you’d be hard put to show me a novel that will surpass it in my esteem. It is my number one favorite read in a year that’s been jammed to the gills with favorite reads and I suspect it will be for many of you as well. If you haven’t read Hank Early’s work, you’re doing yourself an extreme disservice and it’s something you need to unfuck as soon as possible.
Super review. I do like captivating, poetic prose that doesn’t come across as purple prose. “Rural noir” is a new term for me. It sounds like a genre I’d enjoy.