When we meet Odom Shiloh, the middle-aged assistant to the assistant football coach at Frothmouth High School in the fictional town of Frothmouth, Arkansas (pop. 327), he's enlisted his friend (an art historian turned private investigator named Blakey Flake) to find Odom's 36-year-old sister, Bridget (aka, for 36 years, "Birdshit"). Bridget writes poetry. Bridget's been dealt a horrible hand by a former boyfriend. And she's run off with an 18-year-old Frothmouth High football star who happens to be black. (Odom and Bridget: They're white.)
Maybe the couple have made it down to Louisiana. Or maybe they're in Little Rock. Or Fayetteville. Or as far as Kansas City. Odom would like to know, but he's sort of on the lam too: from himself perhaps and definitely after he hightailed it out of Memphis, where Odom absent-mindedly collided with a cyclist who was traveling at top speed during the "Memphis 300" bike race. The accident has landed that cyclist in the hospital, and the accident put Odom at full speed back on I-40 and heading home to Frothmouth.
So, no wonder, as Odom himself admits, he's lately "been out of sorts." (His second marriage? It's on the rocks, though Odom still has affection for Briana [aka Bree] and his step-son, Sparkman [aka Spark, aka Sparky].) As Odom describes it, he's been having "these fits" where he "zones out" and loses track of what's happening around him. Warning to Odom, however, and to readers: Based on what Odom learns at the end of Drag the Darkness Down (No Record Press), by Matt Baker, why shouldn't he be subject to fits? The dark revelations at the novel's conclusion are pitch-black and no fun in what is, in the main, a winning, comic novel. Absurdist stuff? True, but just barely if you know backroads America and pop-culture America.
Baker knows both the backroads and pop culture in this, his debut novel. But his stories, essays, and book reviews have already appeared in literary magazines and newspapers. (His story "Survivors" won an honorable mention in 2008 in Memphis magazine's annual fiction contest.) Not bad for a writer who seriously started writing only six years ago and writes when he isn't serving as associate publisher at the Oxford American magazine.
Baker was born in Indiana, grew up in suburban Kansas City, and graduated from the University of Arkansas. Today, he lives in Little Rock, but somewhere between then and now, he trained in comedy at Second City in Chicago and earned a license to operate a forklift in a Styrofoam cup factory. Neither of which explains the novel Baker's working on now: a story about Norbert Fingersol, a messiah on a mission: to travel to Lebanon (Kansas) to find a buried spaceship. It's a novel, Baker said in an e-mail, that's nearing completion. ("As opposed to [my] staring at it for weeks and months, waiting for the words and sentences to magically edit themselves.")
"I think I've always had a comic sensibility," Baker also said. "And I've always wanted to be a writer." To which he added: "the standard answer."
The unstandard answer to why the name "Odom Shiloh": As Baker described it on the Oxford American's website: "The narrator's name ... I stole from two signs. There's an exit off I-40 I used to take and when you come off the exit there were two large signs advertising Odom Manufactured Homes and another business, Shiloh-something. ... I thought, what a great name, Odom Shiloh."
And what a memorable character upon which to hang a first novel as confident as Drag the Darkness Down.