Can a debut novel be a masterpiece of cultural criticism? Chanelle Benz makes an earnest effort to answer that question in the affirmative. The Gone Dead is a startling work that will set your skin tingling and interrupt your sleep ... Reading Benz is exciting and unnerving. She excels at capturing the moods and subtle gradations of her characters who can be upstanding but also shady at times, playing fast and loose with morality ... The first third of Benz’s novel is beautifully lyrical. It calls to mind the rolling, almost musical style of James Baldwin’s prose and mirrors his way of eloquently capturing the ugliest stories. The mystery creates urgency during the second third, when reading feels like trying to fill a bucket with a hole in it. It’s not going fast enough. You want to know more—now. But the ending feels unsatisfyingly ambiguous ... Even so, Benz could become one of the most prominent voices of her generation based on how good this book is.
... almost every chapter in The Gone Dead yields a surprise ... The author excels at capturing authentic turns of phrase ... Benz’s ability to assume a vast array of distinct, heartfelt voices, her knack for understanding and revealing complex human behavior ... Benz’s Delta is portrayed with care and depth ... She traces with nuance and subtlety the stagnant trail of race relations, linking mass incarceration, mandatory minimums, unemployment and crack to anti-miscegenation laws, Freedom Rides and even the South’s loss in the Civil War. Her attention to the recurring nature of racism in this country, and her gift for weaving these insights into a gripping narrative, establish Benz as an adept critic and storyteller.
... the first-time novelist captures human interaction with the polish of a seasoned dramatist, armed with a bevy of tools — a feel for smooth dialogue; a rich sense of place; a knowledge of history and its impact on individuals, families, and communities — that charge her words with authenticity ... American literature loves a good destructive homecoming, and Benz doesn’t stray too much from the tradition, keeping her reader off balance as she shifts among several conflicting points of view. The approach is effective, if a little deceptive. You can look at The Gone Dead as either a halfhearted crime thriller, one not particularly interested in the quick pacing and tight plotting inherent to the genre, or a well-rounded Southern novel, wherein injustice is ingrained ... Benz’s gift for structure is undeniable...Her sprawling cast glistens with distinct cadences and perspectives that combine for a satisfying, affecting whole ... tackles big topics intimately. Perhaps its most unique element as a Southern novel is its potent underlying melancholy ... The climax feels far too rushed, but it does lead into a note-perfect denouement, in which The Gone Dead takes one final deep breath. On the exhale, listen closely.
The novel is anchored by Billie’s point-of-view. Billie, a grant writer in Philadelphia, is honest and forthright, and she serves as a wonderful central narrator ... a wonderful layer of mystery in the storytelling itself: Whom do we believe? ... Benz implicates us in this story and in the history of this place. Our assumptions of who is good and who is evil get called into question again and again ... If Benz wasn’t such a skilled writer, the constant movement from one character to the next might diffuse the power of the novel. But she knows how to dive into a character’s thoughts and yet still retain authorial control ... Benz’s skill at rendering interiority also extends to her use of dialogue—she creates characters out of the words they speak. This, combined with the use of present tense, firmly places the novel in the present moment. There’s a marvelous tension created by using the present tense when so much of the novel is about understanding the past and its weight on the present. The use of dialogue and the present tense also create a strong forward momentum, as the mysteries of the past are explored in the present ... The novel retains this tension right up to its final pages ... Benz shows us the importance of place, family, and always searching for the truth.
You can easily read The Gone Dead in a weekend, and you likely will. It grabs hold early with truly compelling characters and a central mystery, and it sets off at a brisk pace ... Benz...dispenses with the regular signposts of Southern fiction — slamming screen doors, cicadas, sweet tea — in favor of refreshing, original imagery. Billie’s South is gritty ... Benz uses small details, keenly observed by Billie, to warn us that trouble is afoot ... The Gone Dead is above all a blues novel. Even the protagonist’s name — Billie James — reminds us of the blues. But it’s also an arresting whodunit, a portrait of an American family, and a Southern narrative that won’t let the past go.
In The Gone Dead, the first-time novelist captures human interaction with the polish of a seasoned dramatist, armed with a bevy of tools — a feel for smooth dialogue; a rich sense of place; a knowledge of history and its impact on individuals, families, and communities — that charge her words with authenticity ... American literature loves a good destructive homecoming, and Benz doesn’t stray too much from the tradition, keeping her reader off balance as she shifts among several conflicting points of view. The approach is effective, if a little deceptive. You can look at The Gone Dead as either a halfhearted crime thriller, one not particularly interested in the quick pacing and tight plotting inherent to the genre, or a well-rounded Southern novel, wherein injustice is ingrained ... Benz’s gift for structure is undeniable...Her sprawling cast glistens with distinct cadences and perspectives that combine for a satisfying, affecting whole ... Family, land, power — The Gone Dead tackles big topics intimately. Perhaps its most unique element as a Southern novel is its potent underlying melancholy...This accounts for the novel’s deliberate slowness, with Benz taking her time in exploring and understanding a permanently scarred landscape.
In this excellent debut ... Benz unpacks her story slowly, and she brings many surprises to it. The Gone Dead is an entertaining and suspenseful mystery, but also extremely insightful. There are beautifully simple descriptions as well as more complicated emotional observations; best of all, it manages to be exotic yet feel absolutely authentic. Add to that, Ms. Benz studs her story with numerous mentions of books, music and African American history—enough to keep the curious busy for months researching her references ... Ms. Benz’s affection for her characters and their story is so strong that many will leave the novel lifted by love.
With an actor’s ear for dialogue and a directorial vision, Chanelle Benz creates characters and scenes like a playwright. Her debut novel skillfully reveals and also conceals, building tension within her characters and between the past and the present that is left largely unresolved. Chapter by chapter, each told from a different perspective, The Gone Dead spreads out like the Mississippi River’s many tributaries, showing how one person’s life affects others, even long after death ... Benz’s poetic words capture the weariness of a South still mired in old prejudices and transgressions but longing for freedom and redemption.
Benz’s first novel combines brisk plotting and striking characterization to provide a compelling read. The layers, voices, and perspectives make this much more than the story of a woman trying to understand her father’s death 30 years ago ... Benz uses alternating viewpoints to create a gripping picture of a town in which past and present seem so melded, and race relations play out in very personal stories. While race is front and center as a thematic focus, Benz displays an uncanny ability to draw individual portraits, which means that everyone, from the dog Rufus to Uncle Dee, Jim McGee, and cousin Lola, anchor it in reality.
The novel is beautifully written throughout, with descriptions of the land, sounds, and even Billie's dog, Rufus, especially enthralling. Benz's inclusion of Clifton's lost work make Billie's experiences authentic ... Recalling Lalita Tademy's Cane River, this work will appeal to lovers of African American, Southern, and historical fiction.
Benz’s debut novel...is a rich, arresting exploration of racial injustice and the long shadows cast by family legacy ... Populated by a cast of delightfully untrustworthy characters, and told from multiple points of view, Billie’s quest to discover what really happened one night 30 years earlier is propulsive from the outset, culminating in a wrenching final scene. Just as discovering the truth of Billie’s father’s death is not enough to satisfy the novel’s characters, there are no easy answers for readers, who will be haunted by the lingering effects of injustice. A beautiful and devastating portrait of the modern South, this book will linger in the minds of readers.
The legacies of slavery, racism, segregation, and classism imbue the novel, along with the relentless insularity of small-town life. And yet the reader's foothold into this world is tenuous, much like Billie's as she is welcomed and repelled at the same time. Where the novel shines is in dialogue. The music of the spoken word shows that Benz...has a strong ear and appreciation for Southern culture that rings true. Unfortunately, though, the reader is only occasionally steeped in the world of the novel. The thirst for justice is difficult to make palpable, but Benz makes a valiant effort.