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Knuckledragger by Rusty Barnes

knuckledragger-by-rusty-barnesWhen 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.

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Ridgerunner by Rusty Barnes

Since the 2016 US Election, most people now know that Pennsylvania is much more than Philadelphia and its suburbs. Between the City of Brotherly Love and Pittsburgh, there is a vast land filled with farms, forests, mountains and, yes, even Harrisburg. Set in north central Pennsylvania, Rusty Barnes’ Ridgerunner (280 Steps) is a novel about the clash of two families, one that is sort-of law-abiding and another, not so much.

The Pittmans are a family of poachers and hillbilly hoodlums where the boys “were born, bred, and mature criminals by age sixteen”. The Riders are rednecks figuring out how to get by within the confines of society as the land around them is being forever changed by fracking. Ridgerunner opens with Matt Rider, a part-time game warden for the Commonwealth, following two of the oldest Pittmans, Soldier and Jake, through the woods and hills. Pursuing the Pittmans is one thing, capturing them is another. Matt is shot and then subsequently falls into an abandoned well. After Matt is rescued, the chase begins, though which family is doing the chasing changes several times throughout the book.

Barnes, who grew up in northern Pennsylvania where much of Ridgerunner takes place, has a precise attention to geographic detail, whether the characters referring to Pennsylvania as PA — pronounced letter by letter, not as Pa (father) — or how the ATV and animal trails vein through the woods. And then there are guns, lots of guns. The amount of guns that Matt owns is not an exaggeration; guns are tools for those that live in the country, different guns for different purposes whether it is for work, deer hunting or ridding one’s property of squirrels.

I broke down and cleaned the .40 first, awkward as hell with one hand, as it had survived the bottom of a well and deserved better treatment than I usually gave it. Then I lovingly took care of the 9mm Glock 19 and my .22 . I wrapped the .22 in its holster and deposited it on top of the fridge out of reach of any prying hands. The .40 went back with the uniform, and the 9mm on my bedside table. I left them all loaded. Then I took the plug out of my shotgun, loaded it, and set it with a box of shells by the back door.

At times I had problems with Matt’s motivation as he goes through the novel with a “hold my beer and watch this” mentality. But in order to enjoy Ridgerunner, one must realize that the character’s deep-seated hatred of cops, a liberal use oxy, and redneck revenge fantasies, fuel the character’s impulses.

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