A Single Shot by Matthew F. Jones – review

I just finished reading A Single Shot by Matthew F. Jones a few minutes ago, and I feel like I’ve just escaped a run-in with the cops or found a $100-bill fluttering down the sidewalk. Exultant. When you review fiction, you inevitably end up reading a lot more books than you write about. For every one worthy of a review, there are dozens you forget in as little time as it takes to open the next. I say this only to point out that I read a lot of crime fiction – and that it takes a lot to surprise me. And yet, many times while reading A Single Shot, I came to the end of a passage only to realize I’d been literally holding my breath – or so engrossed in what I was reading I hadn’t heard my wife calling or the phone ringing. I don’t remember ever reading a book before this one that actually gave me cramps!

Let’s face it, there’re a lot of hacks out there who attempt to appeal to our puerile sensibilities with shocking material otherwise lacking in merit. There’s a reason it so rarely works. For a book to evoke that white-knuckle suspense where everything around the reader grows silent – where they fall so completely under the writer’s spell it’s akin to hypnosis – that takes a boatload of talent. Matthew F. Jones has at least a yacht’s worth.

On its surface, A Single Shot‘s plot isn’t all that original. Without revealing anything not already given away in the summary, it’s about John Moon, a guy who makes a mistake while tracking a wounded deer and accidentally shoots and kills a young girl. A young girl with a large bag of cash. In his guilt-induced delirium, Moon ends up making a series of mistakes that get progressively worse until the jaw-dropping conclusion.

You’ve heard it before, right? No, you haven’t. Because Jones so skillfully evokes the mountainous terrain and the durable people who inhabit it, because he makes Moon’s internal struggle so real, it feels as if the story’s being told for the first time. Because of its central plot device, A Single Shot begs comparison to Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men. But while I’m properly awed by McCarthy’s skills, I dare say A Single Shot is probably the book McCarthy wished to write – and was perhaps attempting to imitate – when he first conceived No Country. The series of events following John Moon’s accidental murder of the young girl take on the characteristics of a quest, and the heavily wooded landscape warps perceptions, granting the story a wicked fairy-tail aspect reminiscent of William Gay’s Twilight.

A Single Shot was first released in ‘96, and Mulholland couldn’t have picked a better time to resurrect it. Not only is literary crime fiction gaining more ground culturally than it had in the mid-90’s – but this type of literary crime fiction is particularly popular right now. A lot of that’s due to the incomparable Daniel Woodrell, who provides the introduction for Single Shot. Woodrell’s endorsement should give the republication of Single Shot added currency, particularly with Woodrell’s own new book – the excellent short story collection, The Outlaw Album – hitting bookshelves this weekend. As far as recommendations go, they don’t come much stronger, or from more credible sources. Woodrell has done more than any other living writer to popularize the type of fiction referred to as country noir – a term he coined to describe his own work. If you’re not familiar with the form, think Southern Literature without the dead mules, often written by authors above the Mason Dixon line. Stories of hard people living hard lives, mostly after dark, in rural settings. The average country noir character is at odds with the present, feels the tug of the past through the land and the often violent legacies of their ancestors.

John Moon fits firmly into this category. He’s the last in a long line of farmers – crippled by the fact that his father lost the land that should’ve been his birthright. Without that, he feels as if everything he was meant to be has been negated. We get the feeling that, for most of his life, John prided himself for being a throwback. Now he just feels outdated – like a dinosaur when confronted with the everyday hallmarks of modernity everyone else seems to take for granted. This self-pity and John’s tendency to drown it in whiskey has caused his wife, Moira, to leave him, taking their newborn son. For the first time, John is beginning to feel his inability to adapt as a handicap. When he finds the cash, he instantly sees an opportunity to win his family back. But his conscience is plagued so heavily by the young girl’s death that he immediately starts making one mistake after the other, effectively ruining any chance he might’ve had to escape with the loot.

As John fumbles through the following week, things get progressively more violent. Several scenes are so shocking you’ll have to flip back and reread a few pages to make sure you actually read that. And it all comes together with a climax so intense it should carry a warning for pregnant women and those with heart conditions. The whole downward spiral began with a single shot. At the end, it all comes down to another single shot. As Moon struggles against a recent injury to make that shot count, he has this cathartic moment:

From that internal dark place, he screams – silently or aloud – at the plague of injustice fated to him; at the curse of history repeating itself. Wordless ruminations, like large, swooping shadows of predatory birds, are reminders of invisible forces more powerful than he. In muted words, he begs, pleads, beseeches, one of these to alter its course. But they are heartless. Pain lopes as athletically as the unwounded buck through their umbrageous world. Fear is the rustling of branches. Death is what lies on their far side.

I told you so. If you haven’t already picked up a copy of Matthew F. Jones’ A Single Shot – do yourself a favor and get it. So far, it gets my vote for the Spinetingler Award for Best Crime Novel of the Year. In fact, I’m just about to pick it up and read it all over again, just as soon as I finish this sentence.

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