Monte Schulz's This Side of Jordan is the first volume of a jazz-age trilogy that was twelve years in the writing, produced in tribute to Schulz's father, the cartoonist Charles M Schulz. It is beautifully written and thoroughly researched, a veritable time-machine that whirled me through time to the dirty back roads of the American midwest in the year before the Depression.
This Side of Jordan is the story of Alvin Pendergast, a selfish, ignorant, bitter consumptive farm-boy who lights out across America with Chester Burke, a vicious gangster and serial killer. On their first job, they pick up Rascal, a mad dwarf who's been imprisoned by his aunt who hopes to steal his inheritance. The three set out on a series of violent, picaresque adventures as Chester drags them from one act of bloody, senseless criminality to the next.
Did I mention how good the writing is? The writing is excellent. The characters -- the unlikable, passive Alvin; the unlikable, psychotic Chester; the unlikable, compulsive liar Rascal -- are extremely well drawn. The setting is so vivid I felt like I could fall into the book and lose myself there, landing on some dusty road in a tourist camp where the hicks waited to be fleeced or killed by Chester.
In case you missed it, though, I should reiterate that I didn't like any of these characters. The most active character was a sociopath. The secondmost active character was a hopeless, compulsive liar. The point of view character never does a thing off his own bat, and is, instead, led through the action by the people around him.
But I kept reading. I couldn't stop. This book is a masterpiece of setting and storytelling, even if most of the dramatic tension came from waiting for someone who wasn't an utter fool or villain to do something, anything, to change the situation.