When I first started reading George Dawes Green’s new novel, I thought it was going to bear a lot of resemblance to a Coen brothers movie. You know what I’m talking about --- either the type where some ambitious but bumbling would-be criminals completely botch a scam, or the kind where those same criminals discover their brutally violent sides when a crime goes horribly wrong. Or the kind where both humor and brutality become bizarrely intertwined. Now, although this last description might sum up RAVENS on the surface, the book itself gains a kind of psychological intensity and complexity that ushers it out of slapstick and into far deeper, more compelling territory.
The novel takes place in the small town of Brunswick, Georgia, where community college student Tara Boatwright’s mother, Patsy, lives for the weekly Max-a-Million lottery jackpot drawing. The weekly cycle of anticipation and crushing disappointment inevitably drives Patsy into a drunken fit followed by a stupor. But on this particular Wednesday night, Patsy’s dream comes true, as she’s the proud possessor of the one and only winning lottery ticket, with a cash prize of $318 million.
But the Boatwrights are about to find that their dream come true unleashes a living nightmare, when disaffected computer technicians Shaw McBride and Romeo Zderko (on their way from Ohio to Florida for vacation) happen to stop at the very same convenience store where Mitch Boatwright bought the winning lottery ticket --- and overhear enough information to lead them right to the Boatwrights’ front door. Shaw hatches a plan to get his hands on half of the Boatwrights’ millions. He’ll weasel his way into their family, pretending to be an old friend of Mitch’s who went in on the ticket purchase with him. Meanwhile, Romeo will endlessly circle the streets of tiny Brunswick, under strict orders to kill key members of the Boatwrights’ extended family if the Boatwrights call the police or harm Shaw in any way.
When, during a press conference, Shaw expresses a desire to give his multi-millions away, his completely fabricated story of redemption and generosity garners him thousands of admirers and pilgrims from around the country. Meanwhile, reluctant heavy Romeo is torn between lifelong loyalty to Shaw and his growing sympathy for residents of the small town. As Shaw insinuates himself ever more deeply into the Boatwrights’ lives, his hold over them --- and their responses to him --- become ever more twisted and complex. And we start seeing how sudden wealth and celebrity begin to change even the most unexpected players in this increasingly tense drama.
This rapidly expanding range and psychological depth of RAVENS, along with the undercurrents of religious faith and distortion, take the novel from the territory of farce into something more complex, more profound, and, ultimately, more terrifying. The rapidly shifting glimpses into the characters’ points of view --- their hopes, dreams, fears and preoccupations --- make the violent conclusion both more shocking and horrifically inevitable.
In the end, RAVENS is a fundamentally different novel from what its opening chapters might lead you to believe. It’s a portrait of a small town, of the bizarre changes inspired both by great wealth and by a charismatic criminal, of a lifelong friendship based on fear --- all of which combine to make RAVENS a book that will stick with the reader long after the explosive final pages.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 23, 2011