THE LOW ROAD by Australian author Chris Womersley received the 2008 Ned Kelly Award for best first novel. Read it and you will figure out why. Ned Kelly is the Australian version of Jesse James (my Aussie friends would argue that the converse is true), and the award given in his name is, to my mind, a trademark of great crime fiction. Indeed, this is a dark and brooding tale of bad deeds and dogged pursuit, the epitome of noir literature at its very best.
"While THE LOW ROAD is not for the squeamish, fans of dark crime fiction in the United States will hail this book a classic."
Lee and Wild are two men thrown together by circumstance, both on the run from troubles all too much of their own making. When we meet them, and they meet each other, Wild is staying/hiding in an off-market motel when the shady proprietress recruits him into involuntarily treating Lee, who is suffering from a gunshot wound. Wild is a drug addict whose cravings have cost him everything he holds dear, including his family, medical practice and self-respect. Lee, a young ex-con, has little recollection of how he came to be shot; he only remembers a woman and the satchel full of money that made it into the hotel room with him.
One is inclined at first to be somewhat sympathetic to both men, who are flawed but seemingly not evil. Lee, in particular, appears to be the victim of bad choices and hard luck. Wild seems cannily aware of his limitations and knows that he cannot adequately treat a gunshot wound in the squalid room of a no-tell motel. So he undertakes a desperate journey to the remote rural home of a fellow physician, a friend who has tried time and again to put him back on the path of sobriety and righteousness. What follows has the atmosphere of a fever dream as the men, both pursued by demons that are all too real and detained by seemingly ordinary yet powerful obstacles, attempt to reach a sanctuary that seems just beyond their grasp.
Lee is pursued by Josef, a violent yet oddly compassionate Romanian gangster who is hostage to his grandmother’s superstitions (note: you will want to read THE LOW ROAD for Josef’s occasional recitations of these, which are peppered throughout the first third of the book). When Lee and Wild finally reach their goal, things are both more and less than what they had hoped, as the full history of both men is ultimately revealed and a violent, bloody ending occurs, one that seems to be pre-ordained --- though in somewhat different form --- almost from the first page.
Womersley’s prose is muscular, with the solid confidence of an author who has written dozens of novels, as opposed to two (his second is the award-winning BEREFT), and any problems with pacing that might affect the book are more than balanced by the atmospheric wonder that permeates its pages. The tone puts one in the mind of Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, but the prose --- stark, unflinching and unsettling --- is Womersley’s own. While THE LOW ROAD is not for the squeamish, fans of dark crime fiction in the United States will hail this book a classic.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on November 9, 2012