The Road Lester Took by Stephen Graham Jones from Warmed & Bound

reviewed by Court Merrigan

Warmed and Bound“The Road Lester Took” starts with Lester stacking his cards, and this story unfolds in much the same way. It’s all right there for you, right on the first page; but you’re not going to find that out until the hand is dealt, until the last page and that final, revelatory, “Ahhhh” that comes over you like the last sip at the bottom of a glass of good scotch.

You know how it is with a good scotch on the rocks. That first bitter strong sip, the mellow middle, the tonguing of the ice as the last sip burns down and you have to get up and pour yourself another one. “The Road Lester Took” is like that. You’re likely to flip right back to page 235 of Warmed and Bound and start reading again.

Most dark fiction, most fiction in general, is a one-timer. You read once through and are done. “The Road Lester Took” isn’t one of those. There’s enough pleasure here in both language and story that a re-reading more than rewards your time.

Jones has mastered the art of the crucial detail, the turnkey that sums up all we need to know in a single line. There is the physical detail: “Lester looked off, at the bus’s complicated door.”

The back story: “Then Johnny did what all the Johnnies of the world had been doing to Lester since he was fourteen, and one of them had married his mother …”

The front story: “Where he was hiding was deep in a Friday night.”

And sometimes the perfect: “And then the pill exploded wetly behind his eyes.”

“The Road That Lester Took” keeps the suspense front and center and the mayhem off-screen. Twice. Yes, another tasty trick Jones pulls off is to string you along, then drop the level down (if I’m leaving out specifics, it’s because I want you to experience them yourselves) while resolving nothing, then ratcheting up that tension tight again till the last breath of the story, an ending that is both hard to take and entirely natural.

It starts out in what seems to be stereotypical fashion – some guys whiling away a Friday night in the basement, playing cards. But of course things are not what they seem, and not only are the stakes stashes of drugs, but the ostensible villain is an insurance company private investigator.

It strikes me that the insurance company dick, the man who sits on dark streets and sifts through trash cans at the behest of the multibillion dollar corporations – is surely a consummate American villain. And in a bow, perhaps, to the overweening role insurance companies play in American life, the endless forms and premium increases, the insurance dick gets just what he wants, and leaves a big fat mess behind. I don’t know if Jones had a particular symbolism in mind, but this one looms pretty large to me.

Sound like a good set-up? Oh, it gets much better. I’m not going to tell you how here, though. Any more than I’d ask for a sip of your scotch.

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