To understand the world of Ace Atkins’ Tibbehah County, Mississippi, it would behoove you to be familiar with the work of Spencer Hall, college football writer extraordinaire. Every year, he would write a preview for his website, either edsbs.com or bannersociety.com that mixed football with folklore and social commentary. My personal favorite is 2017’s When The Levee Breaks, where he talked about the life of Huey Long and LSU as a parallel to the rise of Donald Trump. This passage is my particular favorite…
There is another point when things slipped in a starker way: November 8, 2016, when everyone in America realized they were living in the South. The perversity of realizing that the worst parts of where you’re from — the racism, the galling inequality, the fictionalized victimhood, an illusion of power, the reliance on a bankrupt concept of loyalty disguised as faith, the disgust for learning and fatal aversion to uncomfortable truths, the willingness to protect a deranged sense of identity at the cost of what might literally be the entire world — were all there, everywhere, all along
There’s no comfort in recognizing it now, only a kind of grim clarity. Y’all live in the South now. We all do, and always did. The franchise worked so well down here they tried it everywhere else.
It didn’t have to be this way. It never had to be this way. And yet, we cheated, conned and killed our way into making it this way, anticipating that the chickens wouldn’t come home to roost. And now here we are.
For nine books, Ace Atkins has slowly but surely built the world of Tibbehah County, with all of its facts, folklore, and closeted skeletons waiting for a reckoning. There have been major chessboard shifts before but it all seems to be building to this. Similar to the X-Files with its Case of the Week vs. Mythology format, this is when both of them meet.
And it’s explosive. The best in the series.
As pointed out to me by another reviewer, Atkins’ Tibbehah is really a stand in for the United States of America. I don’t know if I ever consciously realized this but going back now, especially on more recent books as Atkins got a grasp of his characters and locales, I could understand it better. The sheer lack of welfare structure. Rampant inequity. Outsourced criminality and gangster capitalism. A white man who everyone assumes will be great because that’s what happens in these tales, yet he can only do so much because the system just grinds and grinds.
Here it finally takes all it can.
There are a couple of things that are a little on the nose. The two female Ivy League Brooklynite podcasters are weakly written by Atkins’ standards. It’s clear he doesn’t know what to do with them. They’re supposed to function as a commentary on how northeasterners see the world of the rural south but they fall into stereotype, which is sadly unlike Atkins. Also, Senator Vardaman is just a little too much of a Trump clone to appreciate as a fully formed villain. There’s a scene, a nod to one of Trump’s worst indiscretions, that had me rolling my eyes.
At the same time, the weaknesses of the book reveal what Atkins has tried to do the whole time with this series: make Mississippi familiar. Not better, not worse, not even relatable to Yankee-sensible readers who consume airport paperbacks. But familiar. It feels like home.
And if you look around you, whether in New York, San Francisco or the ‘burbs, it might look familiar.