Go With Me
By Castle Freeman Jr.
Steerforth, 160 pp., $21.95
At first, the man was just following her, but making his presence felt. Then he smashed in the window of her car. Finally, he killed her cat, nearly decapitating the animal.
Most folks might take that as an invitation to pack up and head for the town line. Yet Lillian, scrappy and stubborn, refuses to be scared away. It's that refusal, and how Lillian goes about solving her undeclared war with the man, that propel "Go With Me," a spare, tense novel set within the desolation and desperation of the Vermont woods.
If the Green Mountain State is mostly known as serene and quaint, readers will find none of that here. For author Castle Freeman Jr., Vermont is a stoic landscape where even the trees start to seem like predators with hungry, outstretched arms.
Still, there's nothing quite as menacing as Blackway, the man who Lillian believes is out to hurt her. Of course, Lillian only has a feeling that it was Blackway who vandalized her car and killed her cat. Sheriff Wingate reminds her that a feeling isn't evidence, and you can't arrest someone because of a feeling. Wingate, who doesn't seem all that anxious to tangle with Blackway, sends Lillian to at an old chair factory in search of men without badges who might be persuaded to help.
Though "Go With Me" is only 160 pages, Freeman takes his sweet time telling his story, especially when introducing Blackway, who is preceded by grim reputation. He'd just as soon strike somebody as draw his next breath. So ornery is Blackway that he doesn't even bother removing the keys from his truck's ignition, knowing anyone who recognized the vehicle wouldn't have the nerve to steal it.
By the time we finally meet Blackway, he's scarier than Attila the Hun, Charles Manson, and Dick Cheney combined. In a line both funny and telling, one woman calls him "what we've got up here instead of organized crime."
Eventually, two men agree to help Lillian, but she isn't sure they're strong enough for the task. There's Lester, old and methodical, who won't talk much about what he's going to do, spending more time quietly thinking about how to do it. His sidekick, known as Nate the Great, is a wide-shouldered man-child described as "smarter than a horse, not smarter than a tractor." As they travel deeper into the unforgiving Vermont night, Lillian knows she wants Blackway stopped; she just isn't sure how far she's willing to go to achieve that goal.
"Go With Me" shifts between the trio's pursuit of Blackway and the men who remain back at the old chair factory. They're a Greek chorus that sits around all day drinking beer, playing cards, and cracking wise about nothing and everything. They've known one another long enough to complete one another's stories, and Freeman gives them dialogue that ricochets like a stray bullet. These men, with names like Coop, Whizzer, and D.B., converse in a clipped, repetitive cadence that recalls David Mamet, and seems just as natural with words and ideas that clash, overlap, and are as invigorating as a freestyle rap.
That things will eventually turn violent is a given. Even before a punch is thrown or a shot is fired, the dread is as thick as maple syrup. Freeman, a perceptive, enticing writer, isn't bloodthirsty. When violence erupts, it's sharp and succinct.
Still, this isn't some heady novel about violence or its various consequences. It's about an America - insular and self-defined - that exists beyond the media's gaze. These are hard people, but they're also infused with humor, humanity, and a sense of right and wrong. A fast, memorable read gooey with atmosphere, "Go With Me" is a gem that sparkles with sly insight and cuts like a knife.
Renée Graham is a freelance writer.