Red Light Run, by Baird Harper
Words By Dylan Louis
The eleven linked stories of Baird Harper’s Red Light Run stitch themselves together by the common thread of tragedy—a death by vehicular manslaughter. When Hartley Nolan, a do-good stock broker from Chicago, is found inebriated at the scene of a car wreck that leaves one woman dead, the people of the small Chicago suburb of Tower Hill are left shaken.
Hartley’s wife and father struggle through alcoholism and drug addiction to reunite their family. The victim, Sonia Senn, is grieved by her husband, a well-respected local cemetery owner who struggles to keep his life together amid crippling waves of depression. Sonia’s old, pedophiliac handyman turns hellbent on murdering Hartley; and the city’s real-estate agent just wants to help the bereaved move on. Using a dramatically diverse and maniacally energetic set of characters, Harper examines the lives of those most affected by Sonia’s death through a close, elegant analysis of revenge, hate, desire, and redemption. Each story charges forward, acting as fuel to Harper’s overarching plot, gathering momentum and hurling the collection’s cast into the cycle of their individually dark, inevitable fates.
Acclaimed as a novel of the rare, midwestern-gothic genre, the likes of which Sherwood Anderson would be proud, Red Light Run accurately portrays—in an empathic, borderline-spiritual way—what it means to be alive in the nation’s rustbelt. From tree-devouring beetles and reflective-blue highway signs to the unforgiving, apocalyptic-style thunderstorms native to the flat prairie towns of the Midwest, Harper’s prose holds true to its setting and uses it to its utmost advantage in creating narrative tension, psychological entrapment, and an overwhelming desire to belong.
Open up to any one story in particular and enjoy—with complete, uninterrupted understanding—a captivating arc constructed from clever, unique, and concrete detail. With each passing story, you’ll find plots interconnecting in ways only a mad-genius could foresee, and you’ll find networks of deeply interwoven characters all growing, thriving, and transforming from the book’s central conflict like so many limbs of a multi-trunk oak tree.
Red Light Run may be Harper’s debut novel, but he’s no newcomer to the literary scene. The stories contained within the collection have achieved praise through publication in journals such as Glimmer Train, Tin House, and StoryQuarterly. Collected here together, Harper has a done a rare, brilliant thing—spinning stand-alone tales around a pinwheel in which every story works together to elucidate his vision. Once the spine of the hardcover is broken, and the pinwheel has been spun, the reader need but stand back and watch the swirling mechanism of truth unfurl before them.