S.A. Cosby rocketed to crime-fiction stardom in 2020, despite the pandemic’s blistering effect on publishing, with his novel Blacktop Wasteland, a visceral heist novel that offers a twist on the crime-fiction convention of the down-and-out criminal embarking—against a loudly protesting inner voice—on one last lucrative getaway job to lift him out of dire straits. The twist of Blacktop Wasteland is that the down-and-outer is a streetwise black man, and Cosby had the right voice at exactly the right cultural moment for literary fame. That novel was a rough and raw look at African American life on poverty’s edge, and the stalwart antihero, Beauregard “Bug” Montage, became a hardscrabble symbol of our time.
Cosby’s follow-up is Razorblade Tears (face it, the man has a knack for titles), and it’s the same kind of edgy southern noir that characterized Blacktop Wasteland—except Cosby doubles down on the cultural-touchstone aspect by introducing an LGBTQ angle. The narrative is essentially a two-hander involving the black and white fathers of a married gay couple. Ike Randolph is the father of Isiah, and Buddy Lee is the father of Derek, and when Isiah and Derek are murdered, the unlikely patriarchal duo team up to exact bloody revenge. Flowing through the crime tale is a meditation on fatherhood, which was also a central thematic concern of Blacktop Wasteland. In this book, it’s doubled up, and it’s complicated not only by the southern black experience but also the poor, downtrodden white experience, as exemplified by Buddy Lee. The atmosphere is a cultural tinderbox, so it’s no wonder the narrative explodes off the page.
Cosby has a raw, urgent voice that’s in service of that tinderbox. As with his first book, the metaphors and street analogies can feel like sledgehammers, but they somehow work. Less successful is Cosby’s habit of letting his perspectives wander, sometimes to disorienting effect. At times, I’d even say the narrative feels inelegant, clumsy, brutal, and yet … it’s undeniably powerful. Razorblade Tears moves along like one of the six-cylinder Detroit motors in Blacktop Wasteland, shoving obstacles out of its way, and its desperate characters feel like they’ve risen up from an aspect of America that we rarely see in such searing detail. It’s for this reason that Blacktop Wasteland garnered heaps of praise from all corners, and Razorblade Tears should continue Cosby’s literary success.