Cemetery Road by Greg Iles

Cemetery Road
By Greg Iles
William Morrow
608 pages, hardback

Native son battles good old boys, paper company, Jersey mob in Iles’ smashing new novel

By Matthew Guinn
Special to the Mississippi Clarion-Ledger

“The Natchez Burning Trilogy” cemented Greg Iles’ place in the top tier of America’s literary blockbusters. The novels met with commercial and critical success, spanning 2,000-plus pages of adrenaline-spiked prose, and the third, “Mississippi Blood,” debuted at the #1 spot on the New York Times bestseller list.

From that pinnacle, what next? Where to turn after Penn Cage has dragged every skeleton out of Natchez’ historical closet?

Apparently, Iles decided to get out of town.

His newest, “Cemetery Road,” is set in the fictional town of Bienville, seat of Tenisaw County on the Mississippi and a piece up the road from Natchez. Like many river towns, Bienville has seen its glory days come and go; the town is shrinking from “a slow exsanguination of people and talent that functions like a wasting disease.” That is, until a group of local big shots lure a Chinese paper corporation to town. Their proposed mill will bring billions of dollars to the area and give Bienville a shot at a new life.

But—as happens in Iles’ work—history complicates the present. The site designated for the prospective mill lies atop a trove of Native American artifacts dating back centuries. The moral imperative to preserve these relics butts up against civic progress and private greed. Soon the tension erupts into bitter—and murderous—conflict.

Watching it all come to a boil is Marshall McEwan, a native son who has achieved fame as a Washington journalist but returned home to reconcile with his dying father, owner of The Watchman, Bienville’s newspaper. Soon Marshall is investigating the story of his career—a web of corruption more intricate than any he saw in D.C., right in the sleepy small town of his youth.

Turns out the old boys of Bienville are a good deal more organized and nefarious than Marshall or his newsman father ever thought. Though everything is kept “smooth on the surface, in the Southern tradition,” the Bienville Poker Club has been calling the shots in town since Reconstruction. The Club fully intends for the paper mill to become a reality, no matter the collateral damage. And they have augmented their post-Confederate ranks with ties to the New Jersey mob, courtesy of the town’s riverboat casino. The old boys now have connections to made guys.

Iles dials the tension up higher. Marshall is not long back in his hometown before he runs into his first love, Jet, and begins an affair with her. That Jet is now married to Paul Matheson, a classmate of them both and Marshall’s childhood friend, only deepens the betrayal. And the cost of discovery is high: Paul is a Special Ops veteran of the Middle East conflict and heir apparent to his father’s seat in the Poker Club.

It is impossible to tell more without revealing secrets of an intricate plot where the intrigue is as thick as kudzu and grows at twice the speed. Iles works tension into each page, a threat materializing from every quarter as Marshall digs deeper into the Club’s dealings and his own past. Iles seems to have learned how to squeeze all the menace and suspense of his Natchez trilogy into a single, standalone novel.

But what is best to see in “Cemetery Road” is that while Iles may have moved on from Natchez, he has retained the melancholic tone and long view of history that made his trilogy an important meditation on Southern history. “I think it’s probably best to leave the past in the past,” Marshall says in a rare moment of surrender. To which an older, wiser Mississippian replies, “If only we could.”

Novelist Matthew Guinn is associate professor of creative writing at Belhaven University.

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