South Village by Rob Hart

“I don’t mean to be unkind, but I’ve known you a long time now. You have a habit for building narratives. Getting too wrapped up in wanting to fight dragons.” — Tibo

Ashley (Ash) McKenna has been fighting dragons of one kind or another his entire life. When readers first met the Staten Island born and bred McKenna in series debut New Yorked, he was a man who had allowed long-simmering anger to creep in on and rule his life, driving him to abuse both substances and those around him. After bringing his personal investigation into the murder of his longtime friend and unrequited love, Chell, to a violent conclusion, McKenna pulled up his stakes and headed for Oregon.

City of Rose found McKenna a little less angry, a little more reserved, and much more willing to (try to) turn the other cheek. Despite his best intentions, however, McKenna found himself fighting yet another dragon when a coworker’s daughter went missing and his aid was enlisted. In the course of getting the girl back, McKenna was forced to commit another act of violence from which there was no turning back. So he ran.

South Village finds McKenna biding time in a hippie commune deep in the Georgia woods while he waits for his passport application to be processed. Having run from coast to coast and back again in the US without finding peace, McKenna’s ready for a serious change of pace in the Czech Republic. McKenna does the bare minimum necessary to avoid getting kicked out of the commune, contributing shifts in the kitchen but not taking part in the community sharing that occurs before each evening meal. He finds his communion in the bottoms of whiskey bottles, drinking himself into blackout status on a near daily basis.

When one of the community members is found dead beneath his treehouse living quarters, both the commune leader, Tibo, and the local authorities seem inclined to write the event off as simply bad luck and a worn rope bridge that finally frayed to the point of snapping. McKenna’s instincts tell him something more is going on, and against his own better judgment he finds himself once again drawn into battle. This time, however, McKenna is fighting dragons on two fronts: his personal addiction, as well as an insidious, and potentially deadly, plot that has infiltrated the peaceful community.

Ash McKenna is an endlessly fascinating character for readers who want their leads to have more depth than a muscle-bound action hero charging in to save the day and emerging unscathed. McKenna wants desperately to be a better man, to find some inner peace, but every path he’s tried to take to personal enlightenment has been filled with boobytraps. Up until now, however, McKenna has been trying to walk those paths alone. In South Village, author Rob Hart gives McKenna someone not only willing to challenge McKenna, but who has the experience and patience, and toughness of his own, to do so. In the commune’s head cook, Aesop, McKenna finally meets someone both willing to call him on his bullshit, but also able to offer guidance on how McKenna can break free of his personal dragon.

For a character who started off as something of a blunt instrument who approached the world from a perspective of anger, seeing everything in absolutes, Hart’s progression of McKenna has been a joy to behold. In each subsequent outing McKenna has slowly evolved, coming to the realization that the world is not a contrast of stark black and white, but rather is a morally ambiguous palette of grays. Where McKenna goes from here, both literally and emotionally, I can’t wait to see.

South Village is available now from Polis Books. The fourth book in the Ash McKenna series, The Woman From Prague, is forthcoming from Polis in July.

Rob Hart is the author of New Yorked, City of Rose, and South Village. His short stories have appeared in publications like Shotgun Honey, Needle, Thuglit, Joyland, and Helix Literary Magazine. Non-fiction has appeared at Salon, The Daily Beast, Nailed, and the Powell’s bookstore blog. His short story “How to Make the Perfect New York Bagel” received honorable mention in The Best American Mystery Stories 2015. Another short story, “Foodies,” was nominated for a Derringer Award. Find him online at his website and on Twitter.

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