BY ARTHUR McCULLOCH
This is the second installment of our new series, “Read This Book Now.” Put aside everything you’re doing and read Reap immediately. (See the other entries here.)
Reap, by Eric Rickstad, is a coming of age story set in rural Vermont, where life is bleak and there is little hope of a future. Jessup Burke, an easily distracted, over-trusting youth stumbles into the company of Reg Cumber, a callous ex-con who introduces him into a ruined and paranoid world of drug trafficking.
Reg and Jessup’s worlds intersect when Reg nearly runs down Jessup with his car. Reg, a mechanic by trade, pledges to resurrect Jessup’s inoperable Vega. Lured by prospect of finally being able to visit his out-of-state girlfriend, Jessup agrees to work for Reg, unaware at first that he’s getting paid for harvesting and transporting drugs. Despite sudden moments of fear and unease, Jessup welcome’s Reg’s company, and soon the older man is introducing him to abusing booze and weed.
Rickstad captures the youth and innocence of Jessup, his habit of daydreaming and mooning over his girlfriend, Emily, without being sappy or sentimental. Jessup’s character undergoes complex changes as he is gradually corrupted. As Jessup sheds his adolescence, Rickstad (with wonderful directness and careful prose) allows him to grow increasingly aware of some of his circumstances while retaining a boyish obliviousness to others.
Rickstad wonderfully pairs together direct prose and lyricism to create an at once gritty and yet beautiful environment of place and character. His sense of metaphor draws from the natural environment and they often add equal depth and richness to the characters, their actions, and the setting.
Reap is told in the third person and shifts perspectives between Jessup and the other characters. Throughout Reap, Rickstad employs a compassionate narration that expresses the coarseness of his other characters while simultaneously attaching sympathy to their plight and desperation.
Reg is an ex-con who blames his former incarceration solely on his friend having rolled on him. Now released from jail, Reg immediately resumes growing marijuana with the intent of trafficking enough to make enough money to escape Vermont. Somewhat of a local celebrity in the local road racing circuit, Reg spends much of his time driving recklessly along the back roads of Vermont, drunk and stoned, and fantasizing about driving in NASCAR when he gets away.
Reg introduces Jessup to his sister, Marigold Please, who becomes Jessup’s visceral love interest in the novel. Marigold lives in a dilapidated trailer and is on the brink of poverty. She is trapped in a lifeless marriage with a ruined logger named Hess whose self-inflicted injury with a chainsaw has left him listless, withdrawn. Marigold is neglected by her husband and is as attracted to Jessup as much by his youthful body as she is to his attention to her.
Hess Please is caught in a cycle of self-loathing and drunkenness, feeling the injury has stripped him of his manhood, psychologically as well as physically. Only at the end of the novel, spurned on by feelings of betrayal and jealousy, does he try to regain his life in a mad, misguided transference of self-abuse to acts of vicious, outward assault.
Reg’s main partner in growing marijuana is Lamar, a paranoid recluse who lives in the deep woods. When Reg visits Lamar to gather his crop he finds his friend mutilated and dying in his cabin. Reg mistakenly assumes that the Lavalette brothers, Reg’s life-long enemies and his drug-growing competitors, attacked Lamar, not a game warden who came knocking at the wrong door. Despite the successful crop and the promise of enough cash to escape Vermont, Reg vows vengeance on the Lavalettes. But Reg’s plans to steal their crop goes terribly awry and leads to a bloody feud that brings disaster to all of the characters in the story.
Rickstad carefully weaves together his stories, establishing his characters as he artfully plants seeds of conflict. His sense of pacing is superb, and as the lives of the characters increasingly entangle the author continues to build tension until it eventually explodes at the novel’s end.
In a time when a lot of attention is being focused on the drug trafficking coming out of the Mohawk Reservation in Northern New York and Ottawa, Rickstad provides insight into a world influenced by it just beyond the reservation’s borders. Rickstad daringly exposes the unseemly side of life in rural Vermont, the prevalent desperation and struggle with poverty that exists beyond the more popularly depicted places of Manchester, Dorset, and Burlington that many outsiders believe to be the true Vermont.
There’s nothing more exciting than stumbling upon a new voice in fiction. Despite a strong reception by the press and high praise by other writers, Reap did not get the market attention it deserved; it should be read by anyone interested in discovering the arrival of a serious talent, one whose work puts him in the company of Russell Banks.