Matt Forney
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The Smell of Pines: A Long Walk with Death by James Druman

the-smell-of-pinesWhen I first published Confessions of an Online Hustler months ago, one of my friends commented to the effect of, “But aren’t there already tons of books on how to make money online?” My reply was thus: “So what? My book will succeed because it’s not a get-rich-quick scheme, it’s a quality product that people will enjoy and actually use.” This is a common argument people use when they’re trying to dissuade you from doing something out of the ordinary—writing a book, working out, starting a small business etc.—bringing up the fact that most people fail or that the average so-and-so isn’t successful at it.

There’s a solution to this: don’t be average.

Average is polite-speak for “failure.” Most people are failures. Most people lack the intelligence to do anything more than punch a clock and punch their clowns at night after the wife is in bed and the lights are off. If you approach your life with apathy and boredom, then no shit you’re going to fail. Choosing to not pursue your dreams because the average moron fails at them is a tacit acknowledge that you are a moron.

If you legitimately feel that way, then I suppose you’re doing yourself a favor by sticking to reality TV and porn, but if you’re smart and dedicated, listening to the Debbie Downers will be disastrous for you.

Going back to my friend and Confessions, book publishing isn’t a race where the first to the finish line wins everything. It’s not like selling vegetables, where the differences between types are negligible or nonexistent. It’s a legitimate competition where marketing and quality determine who takes home the gold. If you write a good book and market it properly, you will succeed.

Case in point: James Druman’s debut novel, The Smell of Pines.

I’m half-convinced that Druman is lying when he claims that this is his first novel; it’s simply too good to be the work of a newbie. The Smell of Pines is easily one of the best books released this year. It’s a novel that succeeds on so many levels—from story to characterization to style—that its mere existence is an iron-clad refutation of the idea that we need cloistered publishing companies in New York to determine what makes it to bookshelves.

The Smell of Pines centers on Derek Patterson, a 17-year old kid who is hiking in the woods when he slips and falls down a ledge, smacking his head open on a boulder on the way down. As he lies dying on the forest floor, the narrative shifts through a series of flashbacks starting with Derek’s early life, his mother’s suicide, his abusive stepfather Jerry, his ex-con brother Peter and more. The novel eventually opens up to incorporate multiple characters, weaving an intricate series of plots together in a melange of horror, mystery and drama:

It seemed like only yesterday when he and Valerie were sick with love, wasting entire days in bed whenever they got the chance. Back then, all that mattered was them. All they needed was each other . They’d lie through the sticky summer afternoons, having sex until their bodies were too sore to do anything but stare into one another’s eyes. Then they would have sex again.

Basically, imagine if the Coen brothers and David Lynch collaborated on a screenplay, and you have The Smell of Pines in a nutshell.

Druman effortlessly juggles all these balls through his clean prose and multilayered characterization. Every character in The Smell of Pines is depicted with a human level of ambiguity, each chapter slowly unraveling their secrets like an onion being peeled. While the book has a fair amount of violence, it’s presented logically and respectfully, and Druman never resorts to sentimentality or bathos. For example, Derek’s dark secrets contrasted with his childhood flashbacks make him a compelling and tragic (in the Greek sense) character. Even Jerry, his drunken and cruel stepfather, is depicted with humanity:

His stepfather gathered the howling puppies and threw them on the bedsprings, and Derek watched him stomp them to pieces, the thin strips of metal pushing through their little bodies. Listened to the rattle of the tired metal every time his foot came down. Saw the blood and gore on the bottom of his work boot. Shiloh lay still, her breathing labored, watching along with him.

And the grand twist of why Derek was in the woods to begin with will stun you when it’s revealed.

Furthermore, Druman’s writing style is enthralling. As the above-posted excerpts show, his prose is erudite yet never feels forced; it flows in a very conversational manner. The book’s chapters alternate between Derek’s present day perspective, which are largely driven by his internal monologue, and the more dialogue-heavy flashback segments. This keeps the book from getting stale and motivates you to keep reading; it never feels like Druman is wasting your time with filler.

Finally, Druman resists the urge to make The Smell of Pines didactic. There’s no ham-fisted moral or point where you’re handed an ideological beatdown or lesson. While the various story strands eventually converge, they do so in a realistic fashion. I was left slightly shaken at the end because the book provoked so many different feelings in me: sadness, gladness, relief.

The biggest flaw with The Smell of Pines is that the story doesn’t wrap itself up as neatly as I would have liked. While it’s still far, far better than a first-time novel has any right to be, Druman loses control of a couple of the balls he’s juggling, and we get to watch them ricochet off the wall and hit a bystander in the head. I won’t spoil it for you, but one of the story threads doesn’t really resolve itself in a satisfying fashion.

But that is a minor, minor issue. If this is a first-time effort from Druman, I’m looking forward to what he comes up with in the future. In a universe of self-published dreck, his novel stands tall like a monolith in a desert. If you enjoy emotional, involving, complex stories, you need to read The Smell of Pines.

Click here to buy The Smell of Pines: A Long Walk with Death.

Read Next: As I Walk These Broken Roads by Davis M.J. Aurini