In 2015, a debut short story collection impressed me so much that I found myself comparing it to almost incomparable Jesus’ Son, the seminal work by the late Denis Johnson. That collection was called Love and Other Wounds, written by TV producer and writer Jordan Harper (Gotham, The Mentalist).
Now, two years later, Harper is back with his debut novel, She Rides Shotgun, a literary thriller that shares one important quality with his 2015 collection: Incredibly potent, powerful language. To start my review of Love and Other Wounds I shared the first line: “John ran through the high desert, away from his grave.” From there, each story, and, importantly, the way Harper wrote them, only continued to impress.
“She wore a loser’s slumped shoulders and hid her face with her hair, but the girl had gunfighter eyes.” And from there, She Rides Shotgun never lets up, surprising at every turn. It carries forth at a brisk pace, but Harper perfectly blends brief quiet moments into this searing yarn about fractured families, and the bonds that keep them together no matter how broken the world around them may seem.
Nate McClusky has been released early from prison, but all is not well. While locked up, Nate didn’t play nice with a dangerous group called the Aryan Steel. To retaliate, the Aryan Steel marked Nate, his daughter, and his ex-wife for dead. So begins Nate’s wild ride for his life.
Harper does a remarkable job of showing us the wreckage that Nate created within his family with few words. As Nate unexpectedly picks up Polly, his eleven year old daughter, from school in a hot wired car, Polly demonstrates her uneasiness through a teddy bear that she keeps in her backpack.
Inside, she knows she is too old for a teddy bear, a thought voiced by Nate, but the bear is given a life of his own. A source for comfort. “It didn’t matter the bear wasn’t real. It only mattered that he was true.”
Shortly into the story, Nate learns that although he reached Polly before it was too late, her mother, his ex-wife, Avis had already been taken down by the Aryan Steel, along with Polly’s step-father.
What follows is a tale of survival, with Nate and Polly not only trying to outrun and outmatch the Aryan Steel, but a detective investigating the murders of Avis and her husband.
Balancing the need to corrupt with the desire to retain her innocence, Nate teaches Polly how to defend herself, and how to fight back, all the while conceding that she is too young to be entangled in such a catastrophic dilemma.
The relationship between estranged father and daughter — Nate had been in prison for more than half of Polly’s life — is one that begins with trepidation, but over time, we see that the apple didn’t fall very far from the tree.
Polly’s evolution, from a quiet girl who required the comfort of an inanimate object to a force to be reckoned with, is what stands out the most here. She is thrusted into situations that no eleven-year-old should experience, amongst nefarious person after nefarious person.
The narrative culminates bombastically, with page-turning action that will keep you reading late into the night. It’s a story of raw violence, of betrayal, of loss, but most of all, it’s a tale of how the seeds of a wayward soul can bloom a bit crookedly while maintaining its beauty.
Polly’s voice, often heard only through her actions and gestural reactions, is one of the strongest and most honest young voices in a novel in quite some time. She learns from her father without becoming him. She develops a relationship with her father despite his flaws. And all throughout, we witness her growing up rapidly, in a way necessitated by the situation.
While this sort of narrative has been done many times before, and will certainly be written many times again, Harper’s way with words makes this one of the best debut novels of the year.
“The next days were the best of them all, so good and wild that later on Polly could only remember them in choppy flashes out of order.”
She Rides Shotgun goes by in a blur, and while Polly may not remember everything that occurred, those who read her story will remember her for a long time to come.
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