I just finished reading Small Town Odds by Jason Headley, which I found at best mediocre. Some have compared Small Town Odds to Richard Russo's novels, which I think is apt only in terms of subject matter (small-town life); Headley is nowhere near the writer Russo is. Jason Headley is not going to win a Pulitzer, I promise you.
The plot is a slim one (which needn't be a criticism, and I don't mean it to be one here) and a familiar one: Guy dreams of getting out of small town, guy remains stuck in small town, guy learns to love life in small town. (George Bailey, anyone?) In this case, it's Eric, the smart, popular high school football star. Oh, and I forgot to mention that he's an alcoholic who regularly gets into barroom fights and winds up in jail, unable to remember how or why he ended up there when his friend Deke bails him out the next morning. He's not presented as an alcoholic—the "a" word never once appears—but every problem in his life can be traced to drinking too much beer and losing control. It got really upsetting by the end of the novel; his drinking problem was never addressed, and yet it was featured prominently throughout the plot. Moreover, his penchant for starting brawls just didn't ring true in light of the rest of his characterization.
Eric is the only three-dimensional character in the entire book. The other characters, even the major ones, are pulled right from central casting: the crusty old grandpa, the tough high school football coach, the officious town cop, the new girl in town who is "somehow different" from all the other girls, the mild-mannered funeral director, the gossipy diner owner, the dopey guys drinkin' and arguin' down at the Legion Hall, the bawdy hairdresser, etc. We've met all of them a million times over, and not one of them is fleshed out in any way here.
I found both the exposition and the dialogue to be so over-earnestly "colorful" that it became almost laughable. Here's a description of the time Eric and his pals, then 12 years old, ran into trouble with a typically cantankerous old guy:
They'd crossed paths with the old man in the blue trailer a few times, because if they wanted to play in the woods behind the railroad tracks, they had to cut through his land. Unfortunately, he didn't sanction this arrangement and took it upon himself to let them know it in a most unsettling way. This last time, he passed right by any friendly warnings or gentle reprimands and cut straight into full-blaze, swear-laden threats.
I think Headley's going for the voice of the wise old rube, grinning while regaling us with his childhood tales, probably rocking back and forth with his thumbs hooked behind his overall straps, and it gets old fast. Early on, I joked to myself that I half-expected someone to mention that they were listening to the Charlie Daniels Band in a pickup truck when someone commenced to fightin', when I come across this scene, set during an all-night graduation party:
Deke danced a short jig to the fiddle of the Charlie Daniels Band playing on someone's car stereo at the other end of the field.
Furthermore, Headley's editor should be ashamed of himself/herself! Headley misuses lie/lay/lain and lay/laid/laid throughout (for instance, "Eric laid down beside her and closed his eyes" and "The air was a dark, wet blanket laying across all of them"). He also left out many a necessary comma ("Boy, Deke, I'm pretty messed up now." "You're not going to puke, are you?"), which is just plain sloppy. Perhaps a decent editor could have also helped with Headley's occasional shifting of point-of-view and with the forced aw-shucks voice.
The story was nice enough, and I didn't mind finishing the book, but Headley is no Russo, that's for dang-shootin'-sure. (Sorry.)