The air has a snap to it on a blue-skied April day in Virginia; a beautiful day for a funeral. As the thin crowd of mourners—friends and a scattering of the family—ebb away to go on with their lives, four men remain at the graveside. Two sons who’ll never see 30 lying in their coffins, two fathers struggling to speak. What do you say when you’re burying your boy and his husband, a loving couple whose marriage ceremony you missed, whom you struggled to understand or accept?
Buddy Lee Jenkins, a wiry and weathered white man, introduces himself to Ike Randolph, then spies the lion and twin swords tattooed on the Black man’s hand. Prison ink. Buddy recognizes it from his own experience; he did a nickel Upstate himself. Two ex-con fathers, two murdered sons. Ike has spent 15 years staying away from “Riot” Randolph, the man he used to be. Now he has a landscaping business to run, an orphaned granddaughter to raise, and no time left to mend fences or find forgiveness from Isiah, a son he loved and let down. Again and again.
Tears glisten in Buddy Lee’s eyes as he recalls whipping his son Derek with a belt when his boy was 14 years old and had been kissing a boy by the creek behind their trailer.
“You think they gonna catch who did it?” Buddy Lee shouts to Ike’s back as he stomps away.
It won’t be the only funeral in this story.
Crime fiction is the framework which I use to tell my stories to talk about race, about violence, about tragic and toxic masculinity, about the fragility of masculinity, about class and poverty,” says Shawn Cosby, who became a breakout star of 2020 thanks to his extraordinary crime novel Blacktop Wasteland. A heist thriller threaded with rural noir and meditations on race relations and more in the American South, Blacktop Wasteland was a New York Times Notable Book of 2020 and set up camp on numerous ‘best of the year’ lists in several countries.
Cosby’s snarling prose and exquisite storytelling has seen his tale of former getaway driver Beauregard “Bug” Montage’s efforts to support his family—and survive his own instincts and his father’s legacy—become a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Barry Award for Best Novel (with more accolades likely added by the time this article is published).
“I’ve been writing seriously since I was 20, and I’m 47 now,” S.A. Cosby says. “So, you know, people think like Blacktop Wasteland ‘Oh it’s got a movie deal,’ and Razorblade Tears has a movie deal, ‘Oh you’re just this overnight success.’ But man, it’s a lot of noes to get to that one yes. It hurts, it sucks, it’s awful.”
His new novel, Razorblade Tears, is the story of Ike and Buddy Lee searching for justice for their murdered sons, and redemption for themselves. Remarkably, it raises the bar even higher.
“I’m still amazed and honored and flattered the way that Blacktop has connected with so many people,” says Cosby on video chat from his home in Gloucester, Virginia where he’s been sheltering, writing, and experimenting with cocktail recipes during the pandemic. “The response is beyond my wildest imaginings of what I thought that book would do. It’s incredibly gratifying how my book has connected with so many people...because as a writer that’s all you want; you just want people to get your story. It makes me feel like I’ve done what I set out to do.”
It’s a feeling Cosby has worked hard for, for a very long time.
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