Brian Chilson
Eli Cranor

What image best typifies The Natural State? Hawksbill Crag? Reynolds Razorback Stadium? A bowl of queso with Ro-Tel? Or maybe the signs of our poultry industry — chicken houses punctuating the landscape, cage-stuffed trucks leaving a wake of feathers on the highway?

If the last items ring hollow, it’s not just because they lack Insta appeal. I’d submit that it’s also due to our self-serving needs to obscure ugliness when it’s in plain sight — and due to extraordinary pressures leveraged against journalistic and legislative sunshine by the poultry industry, which provides a foreboding and quintessentially Arkansan backdrop for Eli Cranor’s latest novel, “Broiler,” out on Tuesday, July 2 via Soho Press.

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“Broiler” is action-packed. Cranor, an Arkansas native who played and coached football before fully turning to fiction, keeps the plot surging forward with twists and turns and cliffhangers that will keep readers hooked. The novel entangles two couples whose lives orbit a chicken plant in Northwest Arkansas. Luke manages the plant while his wife, Mimi, stays home with their sixth-month-old son, and Edwin and Gabriela both work the line at the plant. Early chapters toggle between characters’ perspectives, developing marital tensions that run in parallel between the wealthy white couple and the destitute Mexican migrants. 

The domestic challenges soon give way to a dramatic crime. Edwin kidnaps the newborn out of a strange confluence of emotions — to punish Luke for his exploitative management at the plant, to console himself and Gabriela, who together are struggling in the aftermath of a miscarriage. From there, Cranor sets in motion a chain reaction plot that rapidly moves through ransom demands, thefts and hostage-taking. An extramarital affair is discovered. Guns creep into play. At one point, the chickens get loose. 

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The plant that intertwines these couples’ fates is called “Detmer” — named for a chicken farmer who grew his empire from “just outside the Springdale city limits.” That Cranor identifies Sam Walton and Walmart by name, but uses “Detmer” as a surrogate for Tyson makes the industry all the more mysterious and menacing. He peppers the narrative with details about life along the line at the plant — the chicken’s merciless path from truck to scalding bath to table, the numbing cold and repetition that workers must endure during their shifts, the workers resorting to adult diapers when they are not given bathroom breaks. If “Broiler”’s plot escalates to melodramatic heights, it is rooted in the resentment that stems from these very real circumstances.

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While pacing a breakneck plot, “Broiler also develops notable themes for readers to consider. Luke and Edwin, for instance, both display characteristics of pitifully stunted masculinity, consistently behaving like man-children — Edwin unable to articulate a coherent motive for the kidnapping, Luke rendezvousing with his mistress even as his child is missing. This behavior ties together the two men, despite their antagonism in the plot and despite the wide chasms between their experiences of class and work and nationality and ethnicity. It also ties together Mimi and Gabriela, who throughout the novel are beleaguered by the decisions made by their infantile husbands.  

It’s easy to get lost in “Broiler”’s plot and overlook the questions it poses. What does it mean that these two men from such different backgrounds share such similar failures to grow, to relate fully to their partners and to those who surround them? When the novel almost exclusively describes its central crime with the verb “to steal” rather than verb forms such as “to kidnap” or “to abduct” — what meaning is to be found there? And what does it mean to call a state home, when it is shot through with animal and labor and migrant rights issues that too often we fail to confront? A savvy novel like “Broilerenacts a kind of prestidigitation — raising these questions with one hand, distracting the reader from them with another. This kind of magic act, balancing the extremes of what a stuffy literature professor might call “literary fiction” and “popular fiction,” is a rare find, and succeeds only because Cranor seems genuinely interested in satisfying both kinds of readerly needs.

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Cranor’s novel defies easy categories. The book’s blurbs often invoke “noir,” but I find “Broiler more sensitive to its characters’ plights than the noir and hardboiled novels I’m familiar with. It is published under Soho’s “Crime” imprint, but it seems as interested in narrating the poultry industry as it does in narrating the kidnapping and its consequences. I’m not eager to label it a “thriller,” either, since it integrates elements of expose journalism along conventions of tension and suspense. But “Broiler” is thrilling — more than thrilling enough to keep a reader’s attention while probing hard questions about what Arkansas means today.  

Cranor’s upcoming book tour includes stops at The Old Bank in Russellville at 5 p.m. Sunday, June 30; Bookish in Forth Smith at 6 p.m. Monday, July 1; WordsWorth Books in Little Rock at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, July 2 (where he’ll be in conversation with Graham Gordy); Two Friends Books in Bentonville at 6 p.m. Wednesday, July 3; Underbrush Books in Rogers at 1 p.m. Friday, July 5; Pearls Books in Fayetteville at 6:30 p.m. Friday, July 5; and Barnes & Noble in Little Rock at 1 p.m. Saturday, July 6. For more Eli Cranor content, check out the eclipse-themed short story he penned for the Arkansas Times in April.

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