cover image Liquid Snakes

Liquid Snakes

Stephen Kearse. Soft Skull, $27 (320p) ISBN 978-1-59376-751-8

Kearse’s latest (after In the Heat of the Light) is a dazzling pharmacological thriller that dances on the knife’s edge of satire. The prologue sets the tone for the semi-speculative story to come, laying out the license agreement for a dangerous new app called EightBall in mind-numbing fine print. Nestled within are some strange and ominous warnings, however: “You do not need permission to be free, but you might need weapons.” At Atlanta’s Harriet Tubman Leadership Academy, high school student Valencia McCormick dies after ingesting a glowing black liquid, and Centers for Disease Control epidemiologists Ebonee McCollum and Retta Vickers are sent to determine if she is the latest victim of the city’s suicide epidemic. They discover that the deaths are linked to a complex project of extermination, developed by Black biochemist Kenny Bomar and capitalized on by his friend Thurgood Houser. Euphemistically called blackouts, the deaths are caused by a toxic chemical Bomar designed to allow Black people the chance to choose their own death as a stand against racial discrimination. Written with incisive wit and studded with references to Black popular culture (Retta’s college “foray into radicalism” included listening to musical group the Soulquarians) and troubling incidents from recent history, this entertains even as it deeply disturbs. (Aug.)