“If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all.” The humorous lament from Hee Haw would not elicit a laugh from the people of Jeanette, the small Barataria Bay village that is the setting for  The Marauders, a suspenseful debut novel by Tom Cooper. There is plenty of gloom, despair and agony to go around what with the one-two punch of Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon blowout that is strangling the lives of the people who live in the Louisiana bayous. Life in Jeannette is centered around shrimping, but the oil spill has polluted the water, the catches are small and the shrimp even smaller and even with that, restaurants and markets across America are refusing to carry or serve Gulf shrimp. Their way of life is balanced on a knife edge and everyone is struggling to keep his balance.

The Marauders entangles the stories of the Toup Brothers, twins who grow marijuana and have the hearts of mob enforcers; Cosgrove and Hansen, two hapless ne’er-do-wells who befriend each other during community service and seem destined for mishaps, mayhem and disaster; Brady Grimes, a grubbing BP executive sent to his hometown of Jeanette to pressure people into signing releases for far too little; Gus Lindquist, a drunken dreamer with an obsession with the iconic pirate Jean LaFitte; and Wes Trench, a young man struggling at the brink of adulthood with a hard father and harder choices.

There are frequent comparisons to Elmore Leonard and I can see it when I focus on Cosgrove and Hansen and the Toup Brothers. There is a scene with an alligator that is pure Leonard. Come to think of it, there are more than one scene with alligators that have that element of farce and terror that epitomize Leonard. The brothers certainly bring to mind the brutality and violence of Leonard thugs and Cosgrove and Hansen have the kind of ineffectual and unlucky venality of Leonard goofballs. But they are more complicated than that. For example, Cosgrove and Hansen are tender with the birds they wash of oil in their temporary job that brought them to Jeannette. Cosgrove feels outrage on behalf of the birds.

The Marauders has more heart  and less humor than an Elmore Leonard story and the pace is less frenetic. Instead, I am reminded of Peter Matthiessen, in particular his Watson trilogy. There is the same slowly building anticipation, the same omnipresent brooding menace of the environment and the same empathy and compassion for his characters. There is also a similar accumulation of decisions and confusions that inexorably lead to confrontation and tragedy.

Like Matthiessen, Cooper brings Jeannette and Barataria Bay to life with powerful descriptions rich in imagery and texture. There are scents, tastes, touches and sounds as well as the visual descriptions. I sometimes had to pause because the feeling of menace, just from the landscape was so intense. The bayou is as much a character as any person, albeit injured and damaged by oil. There is an implacable remorselessness to the swamp that no human villain can muster.

All the characters are seeking something, Grimes is seeking contract signatures from all the residents affected by the oil spill–even from his mother. Lindquist is seeking buried treasure and with it, bringing his family back together. Cosgrove and Hansen are seeking some good weed and the Toup Brothers are seeking anyone trying to mess with their weed. Wes Trench is seeking a future and a way to live with his painful memories and his angry, bitter father.

4pawsWhat they find is anything but salvation. I enjoyed The Marauders a lot. I cared about the characters, in particular Lindquist and Wes. Some I wanted to get their comeuppance and some I wanted to get their reward. But life in Barataria Bay is not that simple, neither is this story and that makes it a very good story, indeed.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.