Preston Lang walks among the giants Thompson and Cain with his new book Sunk Costs. A hitchhiker, Dan, comes into town and gets involved in a scheme to steal money that’s already been stolen.
More than a mimicking of the greats, the cadence of Lang’s writing is what makes Sunk Costs worth reading. Lang’s voice belies a calmness that mirrors Dan’s ability to take everything in from the boring to the dangerous. Things happen to Dan outside of his control but lest you think Dan might be an unwilling participant, he also makes decisions that move the story along. In the first chapter, Dan is picked up hitchhiking by a middle-aged woman somewhere in Central Illinois.
She looked at him again, longer this time, studying his eyes carefully. A lot of people think America’s highways are flush with serial killers and Satanists. They’re not, but they can be pretty well stocked with mean, drunk bastards and sadistic jokers. This woman didn’t seem to fall into either of those categories, yet all Dan’s instincts told him she was dangerous. He had jumped out of moving cars before, but on a cold morning like this one, he was just too tired. The idea of busting a leg on the highway was the kind of thing he was willing to balance with the idea of dodging a kitchen knife coming from a fire-eyed woman driving sixty miles an hour. They were both quiet for a while. The driver turned back to the road and relaxed her gaze.
Dan has a long history of bumming around the county as well as doing things that are not on the up and up. When he gets this opportunity to try a make a score, he figures why not. Throughout Sunk Costs, the outside world encroaches on the plans to steal the stolen money and it doesn’t come off as heavy-handed. Lang’s words occur only to convey the situation at hand, “Crazy. All of her words sounded crazy, but the woman was calm and steady. She was a whole lot of trouble, but it was a rational, calculated, indoor kind of trouble.”
There is a remarkable balance in Lang’s sentences, we never see Lang sweat, the words just are. Lang can give us needed information and descriptions of people or the places around them with ease and artistry.
He might not trust Kate, but he felt confident that she wouldn’t do anything on purpose to wreck her own life, and that was enough to go on for the moment—riding and thinking and sweating in the overheated car. The scenery grew flat and grassy.
Lang doesn’t skimp on the story as Sunk Costs has its share of crazy moments, but it’s the beauty of his prose that will make me remember this book at the end of the year. Unlike kids soccer teams that give out participation trophies like candy on Halloween, I don’t award five-star reviews that often, but Preston Lang’s Sunk Costs deserves each and every one of those stars.