By Joe Taylor
Sagging Meniscus, 2023
Paperback: $19.95; Kindle: $8.99
Genre: Fiction
Reviewed by Danny Gamble 

Highway 28 West book cover

Dust you are, and to dust you will return. Genesis 3:19

Take a cup of existentialism, add a tablespoon of phenomenology, and sprinkle a dash of nihilism. Stir and bake for 109 pages. The result? A Southern Gothic tale that takes no turns off Highway 28 West, the Highway to Hell.

In reality, Highway 28 is a stretch of blacktop that runs through Sumpter, Marengo, and Wilcox Counties, including the towns of Livingston, Linden, and Camden in the heart of Alabama’s Black Belt.

But what is “reality”? Author Joe Taylor attempts to answer this question through his narrator, Preacher (a nickname, not a real preacher), who tells his tale as the body count rises and the talking dead converse with him, sometimes offering sound advice, most times not so much. All the while LIZZIE, GIRL POET IN CROWD, serves as a Greek chorus who explains in indecipherable riddles the meaning of Preacher’s gruesome story.

Preacher is considered by many as just plain bad luck; others consider him Satan incarnate, especially the sanctimonious evangelical Christian WOMAN IN CROWD. Everywhere he travels on Highway 28 bodies turn up. He begins to make a list:

The bled-out man in a barn

The old man on the side of the road who declares Preacher’s puppy “like Jesus because he loves everybody”

The girl who drowned in her car during a flash flood

His own father

The fisherman in Lake Blue whose boat capsized

The girl by the railroad track, later dubbed The Faerie Girl

The young lovers who drowned in a pond

The six dead and nineteen wounded in a school shooting

His young coworker who died in a car accident

Preacher was first on the scene in each instance. Bad luck indeed.

He later learns that “lists are false. Lists are terrible things.”

Preacher finally finds “The Answer” after conversing with the fallen Father Jackson, who hanged himself “at the bleeding feet of Jesus on the Crucifix.” “Maybe God has a secret plan?” Preacher asks Father Jackson. “Doomsday is the plan, and no one is the planner,” answers the faithless priest.

Joe Taylor has written a work of philosophical fiction that may answer many questions about the existence of humankind. Or perhaps it’s simply a piece of dark humor, a contemporary Southern Gothic that would make Flannery O’Connor grin. After all, the tale checks all the boxes:

A couple of disgraced churches, one Evangelical, the other Roman Catholic—CHECK

Talking corpses–CHECK

Two young lovers who get tangled in a nest of mating water moccasins—CHECK

A foundling pit bull puppy—CHECK

A small-town Dairy Queen, its florescent lights humming—CHECK

In other words—The perfect summer read.

Danny Gamble writes from Montevallo, Alabama.