The Far Empty by J. Todd Scott is a grim novel of crime, corruption and family destruction on the border of Texas and Mexico. The book opens with Caleb Ross, a high school student, informing us that his father has killed three men and, he is certain, his mother as well.
The novel shifts viewpoints from chapter to chapter which means there is less whodunnit and more who-makes-it-out-alive to this suspenseful story of a few honest people who come to a slow, creeping realization of exactly how deep the corruption goes. Only Caleb is certain from the opening page.
There is a level of corruption that should be incredible, but then I recall “America’s Dirtiest Cops: Cash, Cocaine and Corruption on the Texas Border” in the January 5, 2015 issue of Rolling Stone. I remember thinking when I read it that someone would novelize it one day and be criticized for creating an unrealistically huge conspiracy of corruption. Scott is wise in making his fictional conspiracy smaller, and more credible, than what actually happened.
This is a novel about the vast places with few people, perfect for smuggling people and drugs. Places so vast that people can disappear and never be found. It’s about the drug cartels and the law enforcement officers who fight them and who collaborate with them.
But this is not just a crime novel, mostly, it’s about people, the new deputy Chris and his girlfriend Mel figuring out their relationship after moving to Murfee, about Caleb and his relationship with his father, about Caleb and America, his best friend whose brother is one of those who disappeared in the far, empty spaces. There’s Anne figuring out how she moves on after losing her husband and The Judge, figuring out how to keep his balls in the air, managing always his relationship with the volatile deputy Duane and his son, Caleb.
Yes, those who desire justice and those who desire power are at odds, but the most interesting part of this book is how people come to understand themselves and find personal resolution, and through that, advance the cause of justice.
There is a lot of violence, some of it disturbing. I also struggled with the author’s choice to use one particular racial epithet. It was used to show us exactly how awful the local sheriff (The Judge) is and give us the full display of his moral repugnance. Since none of the characters who were actually active in the story were black, it seemed gratuitous. There are times when it makes sense to use that word to show expose a character’s racism, to show they are of their time or place, and so on. Without a single active character who is black, there was no literary need for it.
I struggled at the beginning of The Far Empty, I found the rapidly shifting point of view kept me from engaging, but after each of them took their turn and I could see how their separate threads will weave into the fuller narrative, I became engrossed. The decisions people made were realistic and so were most of the people. The head of the snake, so to speak, was perhaps a bit one-dimensional in his evil nature, but then his son has no doubt he killed his mother. Perhaps the far empty is not only the land, but the soul of that malevolent force.
The Far Empty will be released on June 7th. I was provided a e-galley of The Far Empty by the publisher through Edelweiss
- J. Todd Scott website