In a town with "three dozen jobs, give or take," the history of each Madson, Neb., homestead permeates the land and its denizens. Deputy Harley Jensen patrols every night, "absently tick[ing] off names of passing tracts like reading a plat map in an old atlas." The events at his abandoned childhood farmhouse are inescapable, often reflected in the eyes or words of his community, and Harley always speeds past. But as Chris Harding Thornton's dark and brilliant debut, Pickard County Atlas, opens, Harley pulls in and finds Paul Reddick there.
The Reddicks were scarred by a 1960 tragedy that remains part mystery. Paul, then four, remembers his family only as broken. In the 18 years since, he's been involved in numerous violent events and run-ins with Harley, who likens him to a bad penny, though "you turn up often enough--wrong place, wrong time--you seem less like an omen than a reason."
Thornton immediately sets a country noirish stage, dropping clues that smolder through the pages as she reveals each family's past. Paul's parents are long-divorced and shells of their former selves. Brother Rick is married with a young daughter, his family a tinderbox of desperation. Though the plot appears male-centric, the women are its true, complex heart. Thornton's expert prose and turns of phrase beg for repeat reading ("cooked like those hobos her mother once told her had roasted in a freight car") and the character work is full of depth and detail that astonish; a dazzling display of literary prowess. --Lauren O'Brien of Malcolm Avenue Review