For all the criticisms that can be leveled at romance – and there are many – it’s easy to lose sight of what a fostering environment romance can be for young writers. Devoted readers of the genre are often quite forgiving of green and otherwise unprofessional debut efforts. The sense is, as long as there is promise in a young author, the rough spots can be forgiven for what is to come. Sometimes there is a tremendous payoff for that patience (Jude Deveraux comes to mind for having penned a spectacularly faulty first novel and then improved as her career grew), and other times, nothing comes from the buried promise of a first book. It is then a treat for those nurturing readers when a debut comes along for which allowances need not be made. In the rarest of rarified debut novel air, are first books that do not read like first books at all, but more like the product of an author in her prime. And, that is exactly how Jana DeLeon’s debut Rumble on the Bayou plays out: like it’s the product of a professional.
Between its title and somewhat cartoonish cover, it might be easy to conclude that Rumble on the Bayou‘s story is more silly than serious, more farce than weighty. Despite the fact that the titular bayou is Gator Bait, Louisiana and that the book’s first scene does feature an alligator in a swimming pool – and that alligator is high on heroin, with more drugs in the knapsack dangling from its teeth, to say nothing of the human finger, sans hand or body, in the gator’s mouth too – Rumble on the Bayou quickly settles into a plot not dark enough to call somber but one of surprising depth nonetheless.
It’s that finger in the alligator’s mouth that best captures the tone of the book. A single detached finger is so much less gruesome than some, seemingly, more significant body part would be. The situation could almost be funny and yet, a lost finger is serious business. And, it’s that finger that brings the principles together. Gator Bait’s deputy sheriff Dorie Berenger and newcomer DEA agent Richard Starke team up – despite their mutual lack of respect for one another – to pursue the man that finger used to be attached to, Shawn Roland. Roland, a long time heroin trafficker, has old and surprising ties to Gator Bait (even if his presence and activities are unknown to the majority of residents, including deputy Dorie).
Finger and pursuit of bad guys aside, a romance springs between Dorie and Richard, one that is often marked by surprising choices from DeLeon. Like many heroes and heroines, Dorie and Richard dislike-at-first-sight, but they are soon given a wealth of reasons to suspect and abhor each other. It is typical to the point of cliché for heroines to stumble into heroes’ stomping grounds and prove themselves to be both foolish and stupid for questioning the hero who turns out to be god of his domain. In this case, Gator Bait is Dorie’s province, she is lord of all she surveys and it is Richard who continually blunders by assumption and underestimation. It is a clever, and well executed, twist on an old concept. Though it should be said that the success of this is, initially, questionable as Richard’s condescending fish-out-of-water persona isn’t too likeable (for Dorie or the reader). However, what this dubious start does is give Richard’s character somewhere to go, room for growth. DeLeon makes the most of this and Richard settles into the sort of leading man readers can root for.
For all that the plot is marked and turned by flying bullets, explosions, and the dangerous business of bringing down drug traffickers, the story is driven by the characters both principle and secondary. DeLeon understands well that secondary characters are only less important in someone else’s story, but that they are always the leads in their own drama. As such Dorie’s father, friends, and various residents of Gator Bait have lives that exist off the page and histories that go back further than page one. The most exemplary example of this is the would-be-romance between Deputy Joe Miller and coffee shop owner Jenny Johnson. Not only does the care DeLeon exhibits with her secondary characters add interest and dimension to the story it allows for believable suspicion to be cast in far corners as the drug trafficking plot thickens. Roland has a partner in Gator Bait and that partner’s identity is a card played very close to the chest until the book’s climax.
Rumble on the Bayou does run into a sharp corner or two and they stand out more for the relative smoothness those angles are surrounded by. Most notably is the story’s climax. Roland’s heretofore concealed partner is revealed and then dispatched in spectacular fashion. It seems though, that the setup demands that Roland would meet the most magnificent and befitting ending. He is after all the big baddy. A criminal sought by the DEA for thirty plus years, chased specifically by Richard for eight and the disturber of Gator Bait’s peace. The payoff for Roland is simply not in keeping with the dramatics that lead to it.
Jana DeLeon’s debut, Rumble on the Bayou, isn’t the typical rough rendering that points to maybe someday, something readable coming along. As an author DeLeon is already fully formed and her debut is, quite simply, stunning. For three hundred and twenty-five pages Rumble on the Bayou hangs together with cohesion and polish that belies the author’s publishing history (or lack thereof). But then, labeling Rumble on the Bayou as a “stunning debut” handicaps the effort in a way it need not be. DeLeon’s offering isn’t good when judged only next to other expectedly uneven first novels, rather it stacks up to anything else in the genre that is tightly written and finely honed. Rumble on the Bayou delights.
You can visit Jana here and purchase this book here and here.