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Paint It Black

North Mississippi noir in a debut page-turner that knows its stuff.

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The Hit

By Jere Hoar

Context Books, 292 pp., $24.95

Doctor's orders say for Luke Carr (age 32, Vietnam vet, hospitalized, Valium-loaded) to get it all down in writing -- nine notebooks in all and in colored pencils to chart Luke's memory of some very black events: in pastel colors when he isn't so sure of some details; in darkest color when he's dead-certain he's remembering right. But is any color dark enough? And is pencil really the wrong way to put things? How 'bout in blood, as Luke himself early-on suggests?

Blood was on his hands (three tours of duty, 19 dead confirmed, including at least one North Vietnamese woman) when he was a crackerjack survivalist and Army Ranger (ex-POW, Purple Heart, Bronze Star, Silver Star with oak-leaf cluster) after a hard-won graduation from Ole Miss (major: English; minor: art history). Blood's on his hands again after he returns from the war post-traumatic-stressed-out and after he meets up again with ex-girlfriend and real man-killer Kinnerly Morris, an Ole Miss "Miss-Everything who wore cashmere sweaters, camel hair coats, and alligator heels her Delta-farmer daddy couldn't afford but bought anyway." The latest "hit," not exactly uninstigated by Kinnerly herself: Kinnerly's rich husband Tom.

That's the set-up and only the beginning in Jere Hoar's debut novel The Hit, and who better than Hoar to take the territory mined by Chandler and Cain, transpose it to the hill country of north Mississippi (place name: Bridgeport, Bridge County), and do it right for all its page-turning worth?

The author, age 73, taught journalism at the University of Mississippi for more than 30 years, so he knows how to cut immediately and effectively to the who, what, when, why, where, and how. And he knows the lay of this land especially -- its seasons; its pine forests and towns; its back roads and open highways; its rich, its poor but nice, its not nice, and its trash; its law enforcers and law breakers; its New South airs and Old South attitudes.

But he's well aware too how to load and aim a cross-bow, how to grip a man till his neck snaps, how to get hold of a couple sticks of dynamite, how to bug a phone, how to handwire a sonic surveillance system, how to equip a cabin in the woods with an escape hatch and tunnel, how to make the murder of a man look like an accident, how to bury another man so the dogs can't get to him, how to throw the dogs off the scent of that murder, how to doctor another dog that's been shot, how to chainsaw a stand of trees, how to forge a new identity out of documents in the local library and The Commercial Appeal, how to judge a set of late-19th-century sporting paintings, how to tell an original from a "restrike" fine-art print, how to reframe those very same prints, how to steal those paintings and prints (plus bronzes) and put them on the art market, how to appreciate a fifth of Dant's 10-year-old bourbon alongside an edition of Chief Modern Poets of Britain while listening to Vivaldi's L'Estro Armonico, Opus 3, and how to get a single man and a married woman up to no good, into one hell of a fix, and acting a lot like Lana Turner and John Garfield. Throw in some Southern-style cutthroat dialogue, some double-dealing, some doubt as to who's who and who's up to what, some flashes of graphic violence, some sizable doses of paranoia, and consider The Hit an extra-fine example of the noir form updated and right chere in our neck of the woods.

This isn't Hoar's first work of fiction. A short-story collection called Body Parts earned him a New York Times Notable Book citation in 1998. But in the April 17, 2003, USA Today, Bob Minzesheimer quotes Hoar as saying that that book "exercised my love of language." The Hit, he wants us to know, was written as "window-pane prose. I wanted to be invisible to the reader. I didn't want anyone to stop and say, 'What a line! What an image!' I was writing not for writers but for readers."

Still, writers as readers is what he got -- stellar comments from the likes of hard-hitters Tom McGuane, Jim Harrison, Barry Hannah, Steve Yarbrough, and John Grisham, who wrote, after reading an advance copy of the The Hit, "I wish I'd written that." Which has helped send The Hit already into its third printing. Which is further indication that the book is a solid, highly crafted read. But feel free to disregard Hoar's mission statement: "Invisible to the reader" the author may be in these pages; his nailing of lines and images, his skill at fast-forward narrative are anything but. n

Look for Jere Hoar to be reading from/signing The Hit here at Burke's Book Store on Monday, June 16th, 5-6:30 p.m.

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