58 pages • 1 hour readS. A. Cosby
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Within a year of its publication in 2020, Blacktop Wasteland, S. A. Cosby’s first novel, received 13 major literary awards and recognitions, including a New York Times Notable Book, NPR’s Best Books of 2020, an Anthony Award, and the Library Journal’s Best Crime Fiction for 2020. Cosby refers to his book as Southern noir. It is a crime thriller in which the main character, Beauregard “Bug” Montage, is an African American garage owner and father of three. Bug is a former getaway driver who yearns to forget his criminal past, even though he feels most alive when running from the police. Beset by financial burdens, Bug decides to participate in one last robbery, and this leads to a series of dangers and tragedies. The book is set in Cosby’s native southeastern Virginia in 2012.
Be advised that the novel contains pervasive adult language and many references to drug use and criminal activity. Scenes of graphic violence, including torture and murder, occur in the novel. This study guide references the original 2020 Flatiron Books paperback edition.
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Though he is known throughout the region as an excellent getaway driver, Beauregard “Bug” Montage has turned away from criminal activity and is trying to earn an honest living with his auto repair garage. His business has slowed considerably since another repair shop, Precision, has opened in Red Hill, Virginia. The competition only exacerbates Bug’s financial needs: His children need care, and his mother’s nursing home bills have piled up. When Bug wins a drag race only to have his proceeds stolen in a scam, he looks around for a crew that needs a getaway driver.
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As luck would have it, Bug’s former associate Ronnie Sessions seeks him out to be his driver for a jewelry store robbery. The crime seems perfect: The jewelry store manager, Lou Ellen, has an incoming shipment of smuggled diamonds, and Ronnie wants to steal it from her. Because the diamonds are contraband, she’ll be unable to report the theft. Ronnie’s girlfriend, Jenny, is in on the heist: She was romantically involved with Lou Ellen, who—not knowing Jenny was untrustworthy—told her about the diamonds. Jenny then secretly told Ronnie. Based on Ronnie’s history of botched criminal projects, Bug is reluctant to work with him and his partner Quan. Bug’s wife, Kia, also protests his involvement. Most persuasive to Bug, however, is his financial need and the promise of a payoff of over $88,000.
Bug carefully plans the escape route and refits a nondescript car. In the process of evaluating the roads around the jewelry store, he helps a young couple arrive at the hospital in the nick of time to deliver their baby. In gratitude, they name their new son “Anthony,” which Bug told them was his name; Anthony was the name of his father who disappeared when Bug was 13.
During the robbery, Quan messes up by taking his eye off the store manager, who grabs a gun and begins firing at them. Ronnie shoots her in the leg, and Quan inadvertently shoots and kills a customer, who turns out to be the young man Bug helped get to the hospital. Bug’s getaway, despite the complications, succeeds, but Bug is furious with his accomplices.
When the narrative point of view briefly switches to Lou Ellen, the reader learns that the jewelry store is actually a front. The smuggled diamond shipment was orchestrated by a mobster named Lazarus “Lazy” Mothersbaugh, and Lou Ellen is petrified of what he’ll do now that the diamonds were stolen. Mobsters who work for “Lazy” show up at her apartment, and, after determining whom she told about the diamonds, they execute her and burn her apartment to cover the crime. They head out to find Jenny.
Ronnie successfully fences the diamonds and delivers Bug’s share of the proceeds. When he takes Jenny her share, she accepts the money but quickly shoos him away. She secretly plans to leave town and start fresh somewhere. As she drives out of town, however, she sees a black Cadillac following her. This is the last the reader sees of Jenny, implying she is murdered.
Bug uses his heist money to pay off his debts, bills, and his daughter’s tuition. When his competitor’s garage, Precision, burns down, Bug suspects the arsonist is his 12-year-old son, Javon. Bug confronts him. Javon admits to the crime, telling Bug that Kia frets about being forced out of business by Precision. Not wanting Javon to end up in juvenile detention, Bug makes his son promise to keep the arson a secret.
Mobsters show up at the mobile home of Reggie, Ronnie’s brother, and demand that Ronnie accompany them. Mobsters separately abduct Bug and take him to Lynchburg, Virginia, where he ends up in a storage room seated next to Quan and Ronnie. Lazy is there, and he explains that the diamonds were his. He would simply kill them, he says, but instead he wants them to do a job: steal a van with 10 rolls of platinum from a competing mobster. Lazy then fatally shoots Quan and sends Bug and Ronnie back to Red Hill. He intends to kill Bug and Ronnie after they steal the platinum.
Back in Red Hill, Bug tells Ronnie that Lazy will kill them after the job. However, Bug already has a plan to steal the truck and kill the mobsters: The platinum-transport van and a trailing SUV are traveling through the North Carolina woods, ad Kelvin is secretly following them. Bug stations a large car across the road and sets it ablaze, knowing the van will stop at the blockade. The van and SUV pull up, and men exit the SUV, looking confused. Kelvin drives up and approaches them, pretending to be friendly and offering to help remove the wreckage from the road. During this distraction, Bug manages to oust the van driver and handcuff him in the back of the van’s interior. Bug takes the wheel and speeds away from the mobsters. He joins up with Ronnie, and the two of them (along with the handcuffed driver) take the van to a wooded staging area, where they meet Reggie and Kelvin. However, Ronnie has been secretly plotting to steal the platinum for himself; he fatally shoots the original van driver and turns his gun on Kelvin and Bug, killing Kelvin. Hit with a bullet in the shoulder, Bug rolls downhill and is knocked out.
Waking hours later, Bug knows that Lazy’s mobsters will come for his family when he does not produce the van. However, he cannot contact Kia. He steals an old Jeep and drives back to Red Hill. Mobsters show up at Bug’s mobile home and drag Kia and eight-year-old Darren outside to abduct them. Javon emerges with Bug’s pistol and begins shooting, starting an erratic gunfight. As the mobsters drive away, Kia and Javon realize that Darren has been shot. Bug arrives at the hospital as Darren undergoes emergency surgery. Enraged, Kia blames Bug for all that has happened and screams at him to leave.
Ronnie and Reggie have taken the van while Ronnie arranges to fence the platinum. Bug tracks down Reggie in a drug den and, after torturing Ronnie’s location out of him, executes Reggie. He finds Ronnie, forces him to say where he hid the van, and executes him. Bug calls Lazy and tells him when and where to meet if he wants to retrieve his platinum. Knowing he might be killed soon, Bug systematically tells all his loved ones goodbye.
Lazy and three associates show up at an old farm where Bug waits with the van. The mobsters inspect it as Bug holds a shotgun on them. As they are driving away, Bug detonates a bomb he has placed in the van, destroying it and damaging the Cadillac the rest of the mobsters are in. He drives after them in his Duster. In the running gun battle, the Cadillac overturns in a cow pasture. Bug pulls over and exits the car, holding his gun. Lazy, the only survivor of the wreck, manages to shoot Bug twice. Bug sneaks back into the Duster and runs over Lazy twice.
In the final scene, Bug and Kia sit in Darren’s hospital room. They discuss the possibility of Bug leaving his criminal life behind for good. He’s not certain that he can.
By S. A. Cosby