Bud Smith’s characters aren’t just flawed, they’re fucked up. They kill people. They lie, cheat, and steal. They avoid responsibility and accountability. But underneath all the ugly sludge, there’s a human trying to redeem him or herself in the eyes of the only person they love. Throughout their chase they make us laugh, look away in revulsion, and remind us to look up at the sky in awe. But Smith never grants them the redemption they’d like, at least not all of it. What little redemption his characters do find seamlessly carries his works of fiction from start to finish, making us root for people we know we shouldn’t.
In I’m From Electric Peak, Smith’s new novella out April 26th on Artistically Declined Press, that character is Kody Green.
Kody’s story begins in the pine barrens of New Jersey as he prepares to kill his girlfriend’s parents. That’s no spoiler. The first two sentences read, “I was overly dramatic, that was my problem. I’d have to shoot both her parents at point-blank range.” Kody does so, and makes sure to tell us it was spaghetti night when he opened fire at the dinner table.
We’re then taken across the U.S. with Kody and his girlfriend, Tella Carticelli, AKA Teal Cartwheels, to campsites, Graceland, convenience stores, California, and yes, Electric Peak, Montana. Kody’s on the run, but he’s more afraid of losing Teal than his own freedom. He’d say he has his priorities straight. We mostly get to know Teal through Kody’s eyes, but that’s enough. Kody watches her and translates her for us, all of her glances, sparse replies, and intonations. Kody notices every detail because he has to; he knows their love is on life support because, you know, he killed her parents.
We swayed back and forth at a glacial pace while the band played sad cowboy songs that I don’t know and never want to know because they sounded so sweet that night that if I ever heard them again, it might spoil the memory.
Just like Smith’s Tollbooth, this story moves. There’s no time for deep insights. Sometimes Smith is almost too impatient to push his characters into their next adventure, however unbelievable (shooting up a grocery store) or mundane (shopping at a gas station). But he fills us in along the way with just enough information to keep us eagerly turning the page. We know Kody’s been bounced around foster homes his whole life. We know Teal was pregnant. But Smith doesn’t care much about the past or future in the worlds he creates, because he revels in the present:
We wore rose-tinted glasses, pretending we weren’t running from the law. That I wasn’t a killer. That Teal wasn’t aiding and abetting and even, gasp, appreciating.
Kody’s present is a terrifying place, but he never gives off even a whiff of fear. We watch him go berserk in a public library just to steal romance novels he knows Teal will devour. He and Teal explore the Grand Canyon with a mystic. He shovels horse shit, intentionally drives off a cliff, and attends church.
Smith said the novella is in the “outlaw love story genre.” That’ true. But it also reads like a young adult novel written for adults, like a diabolical Youth in Revolt. This is the Achilles heel of I’m From Electric Peak. A fair amount of dialogue, prose, and character tics are too reminiscent of a YA pitfall: quirkiness. Teal’s a teenage girl in the early 2000’s who’s obsessed with Elvis: “Elvis all day, every day.” Kody climbs a water tower. He was born in New Jersey but wants to break horses, and hopes to teach Morse code to his future children.
But when Smith goes deep on Kody’s eccentricities, sometimes cute, sometimes disturbing, he goes even deeper into Kody’s search for love and approval. Kody, much like many other characters in Smith’s work, shows us who we should aspire to be–someone who, however damaged and stupid, loves hard. Someone who loves without consequence. Someone, as Kody puts it, “kills for love.” Day to day, the consequences of how we love those most important to us may feel inconsequential, but the consequences are high-stakes in I’m From Electric Peak:
All you get in life on this imperfect marble is love. Find at least one person you want to blow up the whole marble for.
Smith knows we need these stories to show us that how we love every day matters. For Kody, it’s all he’s got. Us, too.
About the reviewer:
Kenny Torrella’s fiction has appeared in NAILED, Oblong, and 101 Words. He lives in Washington, D.C. and spends his days working to prevent cruelty to farmed animals.