Small Town Odds
by Jason Headley
Eric Mercer is stuck in the small town in which he grew up. When we first meet Eric, he seems like just another drunk redneck, who would, of course, be stuck in his sleepy West Virginia town. But soon, we learn more about him, his current situation, and the circumstances that led to it, and we begin to sympathize. Through deft use of alternating chapters, we live a week of Eric’s life, while also visiting key moments in his youth that made him the man he is today — a single father whose dreams of college have been replaced with working two part-time jobs in the town he always wanted to leave.
Throughout Jason Headley’s Small Town Odds, Eric is really the character who comes alive in the story. The rest of the characters — the well-meaning friend, the concerned parents, the former girlfriend, the cute child — threaten to never rise above placeholder status, but Headley manages to infuse each one with enough personality to cement them in your imagination. The actual placeholders, third-string characters you never really get to know, serve their purpose to move the story along but never make a lasting impression. But Eric quickly becomes someone you’ve known. He’s the guy you see making stupid choices, and no matter how many times you try to help him out, he continues down the same path. With Eric, that manifests in drinking to excess and getting into fights, with the result often being a run-in with the local law.
Headley paints a highly accurate picture of small town life and how it feels to want to reach beyond it. I grew up in a similarly-sized town myself, so I have no idea how well his description will serve readers with a different background. Maybe they won’t believe a lot of the things that happen or the types of people you run into, but they do exist in Small Town America, and Headley captures them perfectly. His grasp of dialogue is probably the strongest feature of the story. Eric’s voice is distinct, apart from the townspeople he deals with on a regular basis, and emphasizes the distinction between his desperation and their day-to-day lives.
This is Headley’s first novel and not a perfect book. Some plot threads are introduced and then discarded without resolution. But this is a fine debut, partly because Headley doesn’t take the easy way out. Several times in the book, especially at the end, there are openings for clichéd moments that could take the expected route. Headley avoids these, making the book both more personal and more powerful.