Mystery review: ‘Blacktop Wasteland’ one of the best of the year

By Oline H. Cogdill
Sun Sentinel

“Blacktop Wasteland” by S.A. Cosby; Flatiron (304 pages, $26.99)

“Blacktop Wasteland” introduces S.A. Cosby — a new talent who delivers one of the year’s strongest novels.

The noir story quickly accelerates and doesn’t lose speed until it careens to its finale as it looks at race, responsibility, parenthood and identity via pin-perfect characters with realistic motives. Cosby invests “Blacktop Wasteland” with an emotional approach while delivering a solid thriller.

Set in 2012, “Blacktop Wasteland” revolves around Beauregard “Bug” Montage, a young Black father and husband who owns an auto shop in Shepherd’s Corner, Virginia. He’s worked hard to create a normal life with his wife, Kia, their two sons and sends regular support checks for his teenage daughter from a previous relationship while trying to distance himself from his past.

"Blacktop Wasteland" by S.A. Cosby. (Macmillan/TNS)

Bug’s skills as an expert driver made him highly sought by petty criminals and allowed him to skirt the law — few people can catch Bug when he’s behind the wheel. Off-the-grid drag races on back roads now gives him the driving excitement he craves.

Like many people, Bug and his family live paycheck to paycheck, and a storm of financial problems threaten his solid life. His business begins to fail when a new body shop with lower prices opens in town. His cruel, terminally ill mother is about to be kicked out of her nursing home. His daughter is college bound and one son needs glasses. Even the extra cleaning jobs his wife picks up barely make a dent. Bug feels he has no choice but to take a potentially lucrative job as a getaway driver in a jewelry heist. He doesn’t trust the men planning the heist but believes in his driving skills.

As expected, the robbery goes horribly wrong. While Bug and his partners escape, they have more problems. The vicious owners of the jewelry store are after them. Not only is Bug in danger but so is his family.

Cosby smoothly alternates Bug’s domestic life with his criminal side in “Blacktop Wasteland.” There is no question that he is devoted to his family, still haunted by his father abandoning him which subjected him to daily taunts by his brutal mother. At his heart, the complicated Bug is a good man who will take unsavory actions. Being “without the luxury of options” brings out his criminal tendencies. He wants more for his children.

The economically strapped area of Virginia with its decaying buildings and “desiccated husks” of deserted houses enhances “Blacktop Wasteland” as this setting becomes a metaphor for Bug’s crumbling life. “A blacktop wasteland haunted by the phantoms of the past.”

“Blacktop Wasteland” will easily make it to many best of the year lists.