A review of Sweetwater Blues by Raymond L. Atkins

Reviewed by Charlene Diane Jones

Sweetwater Blues
by Raymond L. Atkins
Mercer University Press
2014, 340 pp, $18

Rodney Earwood and Palmer Cray are joined in destiny from childhood to death. That death comes very early for Rodney Earwood at the wheel of the car driven by his best friend Palmer Cray, an accident fueled by booze and one which finds Palmer Cray’s post-high school experience limited to the cells of Sweetwater Prison. The rest of the story involves Cray’s experience while doing time and his unusual habit of writing regularly to his dead friend, Rodney.

The book is well written. Atkins clearly loves to write, for the sake of writing, but he keeps his love directed toward service of the book itself. His descriptions bear witness to that. For example, on page 156 he writes, “A chill had settled onto Sweetwater State Correctional Facility and hung there like a blanket of fallen snow. The cellblocks were heated, but the cells were built of cold steel, unyielding concrete, and hard time, and they held no warmth to speak of.”

The author also understands the possibility of sentence structure and uses it to his advantage. For instance, he regularly employs a variety of sentence structures, as he does to express the following, “Because he was so young and in light of the fact that his father was whaling away at him at the time of the slicing, Razor had not been tried as an adult for the crime.” Much more effective than writing, “Razor had not been tried as an adult for the crime because he was so young and in light…” etc. (p. 123) Not only does the shake up in sentence structure provide added expression in the moment, it adds spice to the overall read.

Since Atkins teaches English at Georgia Northwestern Technical College we might expect such expertise.

The plot of the novel is simple and direct: the accident, followed by incarceration for the protagonist leads to an unexpected ending. The characters are what drive the book.

Atkins builds Cray as a complex young man capable of intense loyalty, instinctive physical responses that surprise, and deep thought. Cray’s father plays an important role in the novel, as his presence offers the reason we don’t follow the usual path of prison life.

Atkins avoids sensationalizing his depiction of prison with scenes about rape. Through the presence of Cray’s father as the main prison guard, we learn Cray’s experience in prison will be less extreme than it may have been without his father’s care. His father puts him in the cell with his cousin, Cheddar.

Atkins characterizes Cheddar as a former meth head and dealer, who lives without moral regret for his former profession. Cheddar, and his ex-wife Bay-Annette, nicknamed for her thorniness, provide some lightness by way of their view of the world. Cheddar also offers some help in giving Cray advice in the ways of prison life.

If the book weakens a tad across some of prison life, it is after all fiction. Atkin’s fiction rises to a larger theme in the latter half of the book, as we begin to understand different kinds of prison: the prison of addiction, the prison of being muted emotionally, the prison of physical illness and yes, the prison of death. Or is it the prison of life?

It’s a good read, interesting and thoughtfully written.

About the reviewer: Charlene Diane Jones entered her sixth decade (in this lifetime) with the enthusiasm and optimism of a child. Her faith in reincarnation, karma that comes to us as circumstance, and ongoing healing feeds her sense of hope. Her latest book The Stain reveals more about repeating cycles, and how three women’s lives remained tangled. Does one free them all? Find out more at: http://www.soulsciences.net