Chapter 16
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Bayou Treasure

Tom Cooper’s crime-fiction debut, The Marauders, crackles with dark humor and hope

In The Marauders, his first novel, Tom Cooper hits the ground running with a passage that reads like a collaboration between Flannery O’Connor and Elmore Leonard. Here’s Gus Lindquist, a middle-aged, pain-pill-addicted, part-time Louisiana shrimper and full-time treasure hunter, discovering that his $30,000 prosthetic arm is missing from his truck parked outside a local watering hole: “A few other pickups sat under the bug-flurried sodium vapors. Nothing else but cypress lisping in the night breeze, a bottlefly-green Buick bouncing on the blacktop past Sully’s bar. But Lindquist kept looking wild-eyed around the oyster-shell parking lot as if his arm had wandered off on its own volition. As if he might find it standing next to the blue-lit tavern sign, thumbing a ride.”

The one-armed Lindquist, whose obsession with finding the fabled treasure of French pirate Jean Lafitte has slowly destroyed his life, is just one of the many absurd and profane characters Cooper introduces in the early pages of The Marauders. Set in the Barataria Bay region of Southeastern Louisiana during the BP oil-spill disaster of 2010, the narrative barrels through short, punchy chapters in which the point of view bounces between members of a motley crew of misfits and malcontents.

Lindquist’s obsession brings him into conflict with Reginald and Victor Toup, identical-twin marijuana magnates who feel no hesitation about committing murder in the defense of their livelihood. Cosgrove and Hanson are petty criminals who meet while serving out community-service sentences and whose taste for pot and an easy buck puts them on a deadly collision course with the Toup brothers. Then there’s Brady Grimes, a slick-talking oil-company conman who has returned to his native region with orders to hoodwink the locals (including his own mother) into signing lowball settlement agreements against any future damages caused by the massive oil spill that is destroying the local shrimp industry.

The author follows these oddballs through their own plotlines, which intersect at vital moments. Dark humor and Southern atmosphere prevail throughout the novel, invoking both the comedic crime fiction of Floridian Carl Hiaasen and the absurdist dark noirs of Texas crime writer Joe R. Lansdale. Arching over them all is Elmore Leonard’s love for grifters and miscreants, complete with sharp, laugh-out-loud dialogue littered with profanities.

The novel’s heart however, is seventeen-year-old Wes Trench, the son of a local shrimper. Wes is still grappling with the grief of losing his mother during Hurricane Katrina—her death was caused by his father’s stubborn refusal to evacuate, and the ensuing emotional wound has destroyed his own relationship with his father. While the other characters in the novel are occupied with their obsessions or blinded by their own stupidity, Wes is a dreamer who loves the bayous, swamps, and ocean waters even as he acknowledges their power:

The late afternoon was warm and cloudless, the sun a fat shivering coin of pewter, cicadas shrieking in the live oaks. Wes watched the bayou slide past, its sluggish current pulsing with life. Who knew what gargantuan oddity lurked beneath. Wes imagined a catfish the size of a sofa, a turtle the size of a dune buggy. That was one of the things he still loved about the bayou. Its mystery.

They passed a chenier, above a tree line a circling coterie of buzzards. A carrion stench hung in the air. Something dead, a deer or a possum, was in the woods. Even after they passed the island, the gray aftertaste lingered in Wes’s mouth like poison.

Wes Trench’s compassion and humanity inject a vision of hope into the absurdity, profanity, and violence of The Marauders. Hidden amidst the humor and hijinks of this novel is a sense that, despite the foibles of individual human beings, the immensity of nature and the possibility of a better future will survive. This undercurrent of meaning combines with Cooper’s comedic timing, fascinating characters, and precise prose to create an immensely entertaining and engaging tale.