I'm not casting aspersions here, not at all. I'm just going to give an opinion. I would be willing to bet an amount equal to the nut on next month's mortgage that a number of you reading these words have a bag of marijuana in your house for recreational use. You got it from your brother-in-law, or the mail room guy who always smiles, or the proprietress of the local used CD store where you've been trading and selling for years. It was easy and safe to get and nobody, other than a few brain cells, gets hurt when you use it. And you probably never wondered how it got to you, all the seeds and stems so nicely groomed out of it, how it was planted and harvested and processed or whatever the hell they do with it. I'm not a user, and I never really thought about it either, other than on those occasions when I'm confronted with a convenience store clerk with bleary eyes and suspicious breath and an illegal smile who is unable to count out correct change but is at least polite about it. I never thought about it, that is, until I read a dark, dark coming of age novel by Eric Rickstad entitled REAP. And now I don't think about anything else.
REAP is set in northeast Vermont, in the backwoods, where the primary legitimate industries are logging, which is slowly being ruined by environmentalists, and tourism, which is quickly being ruined by French-Canadians. There's an illegitimate industry too, and it's marijuana harvesting. The harvesters in REAP are impulsive and distrustful, eying each other with the uneasy wariness of a group of drunks playing hot potato with a live hand grenade. In the midst of all of this is Jessup Burke, a naive 16-year-old who, in a different place, might have been destined for better things. Burke, having tested out of high school a year early, finds himself adrift in a summer of loose ends. Fatherless, deceived about his heritage from an early age, and with no real friends, he fills his days with fishing and daydreaming about Emily, a tourist's daughter with whom he felt his first true stirrings of love and romance. He and Emily begin correspondence by letter, but it cannot replace the innocent weeks they spent together.
Into this void steps Reg Cumber, a bundle of danger and raw nerves, freshly released from prison for harvesting marijuana and ready to pick up where he left off. Cumber and Burke meet literally by accident, and a bond of sorts is formed between them, forged by their respective attraction to Cumber's corruption and Burke's innocence. It is through this relationship --- part business, part friendship --- that Burke meets Marigold, Cumber's sister, who is struggling in a failed marriage and in need of an impetus to seek out some better life. Burke becomes that impetus and finds himself at the epicenter of a series of figurative and literal explosions that will irrevocably change his life and the lives of those around him.
Rickstad comes from the same literary pool as Larry Brown and Tom Franklin, with a sharp eye for description and an uncanny --- no, make that uncanny --- ability to infuse his characters with the breath of life. While his tale is set in northeast Vermont, the people he writes of can be found in West Virginia, southern Ohio, or central Alabama. A reader who has spent extended periods of time in any of those areas will be able to recognize real-world characters among Rickstad's fictional creations and assign them faces as well as names. Rickstad is an incredible and frightening new talent who hopefully has many, many more tales to tell.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on April 3, 2001