When Shotgun Honey released the Rusty Barnes’ new book Knuckledragger, fans of Barnes’ Ridgerunner were excited that this was the follow-up we were waiting for. Sadly, it was not. But the good news is that Knuckledragger is far better than Ridgerunner.
Rusty Barnes’ latest book starts out quickly, “I took a choked up hold on the rubber grip of the bat and smashed his right elbow. I could feel the bone compress and break. It took the starch out of his dick, I’m happy to say.” The narrator is Jason Stahl aka Candy and lovingly called Irish by his sometime-girl, Rosie. Candy is muscle, bottom of the food chain muscle, for Otis, a crime boss in Revere, Massachusetts. By the end of the first chapter Candy took care of two assignments both of which involved breaking bones and collecting money. And then the chapter wraps up with the boss requesting a sit down with Otis.
As trouble swirls around Candy and Rosie, Barnes story-telling chops are running at full-speed. In Ridgerunner I had a bit of trouble believing in the lead character’s motivation, but with Knuckledragger I had none of that trouble. Shit, even as Candy made several bone-headed decisions, I believed Candy (and Barnes) every step of the way. As Candy tells the reader, “I was not a smart man.” No, he was not.
In a short 202 pages, Barnes develops Candy and Rosie convincingly as they get to know each other better on the road in New England. But anyone can write about two people getting along well, but having them argue in a credible way, that’s something else entirely. Barnes does not have that problem.
“I don’t feel like eating my dinner now,” Rosie said. “Let’s just go.”
“You mean back to the cabin?” I said.
“No, I mean home.”
“OK, we can do that,” I said. “But they’re not going to be back.”
“That’s what you said the last time we saw them,” Rosie said. What could I say to that?
“Let’s stay tonight. I’m supposed to be relaxing.”
“This is relaxing?” I could feel her command of English slipping the more upset she got.
“It will be,” I said. “I promise it will be. No more of this shit.”
Without a word, she walked back toward the canoe. She got in and waited for me to launch the thing, so I waded out into the knee-deep water and jumped in. Rosie paddled pretty hard, working out some of her frustration at me on the paddle. I matched her stroke for stroke even though it hurt. We made the half-mile in record time and before I could even get to the gravel she jumped out into the shallows and walked quickly up to the cabin. I pushed myself and the canoe up on the gravel roughly.
No doubt Rusty Barnes brings the action in Knuckledragger, but the characters are also given space to grow outside of the printed word making Knuckledragger more than a great shoot ’em up story, it’s a classic road novel.