Rodney Earwood and Palmer Cray had been best friends for as long as either could remember. They wandered the hills of north Georgia, hunted the pine woods, fished the cool, green streams, and camped under the stars. They shared each other’s clothing, each other’s families, and each other’s homes. They grew into tall young men, and on a hot May afternoon soon after they turned eighteen, they both graduated from Sweetwater High School.
Shortly thereafter, Rodney and Palmer flew a Camaro into a tree, Palmer flew into a haystack, Rodney flew into the great beyond, and nothing in Sweetwater, Georgia, was ever quite the same. Follow Palmer in the aftermath of his one great mistake as he confronts regret at his own fallibility, endures punishment for his actions, finds unexpected redemption, and is given a second chance to try to make it all right.
Palmer is joined in his journey by a colorful and unlikely assortment of associates including a methamphetamine dealer named Cheddar, a junkyard owner called Ottis Lee, a coffee-can addict named Bay-Annette, and an Alzheimer’s patient who was once Rodney’s mother.
Together they face each day and try to overcome their Sweetwater Blues.
Something about this novel spoke to me. Reading it was like meeting a stranger and finding out we grew up just miles from each other and knew all the same places, or passed through some significant shared experience, like being in the military or working at the same place, even if separated by time. It’s a kinship almost. Possibly it is Atkins’s slow description of life in Sweetwater, even through the thoughts of an inmate remembering the town. It takes me back to my own youth in a small Southern town, where everybody knew me and my whole family, and years passed around us all like water flowing around rocks in a creek bed.
Davis Falk, Reviewer
Atkins leads the reader through the normal hardships of prison life as well as those extra hardships that Palmer faces as the son of the head guard at the prison. He introduces a colorful assortment of characters who all play a large role in Palmer’s time in prison as well as his life after prison. Atkins also provides a unique look into the main character’s mind by providing Palmer’s journal entries at the end of each chapter. Atkins skillfully incorporates humor and suspense as he weaves Palmer’s story. It is a tale of survival and redemption that captures the readers’ imaginations and propels them into Sweetwater Correctional Facility beside Palmer Cray in his cell. This novel will appeal to a wide audience—ranging from young adults to the general public—who appreciate Southern fiction. It should be considered by high school libraries as well as public libraries.
Kim Woodring, Tennessee Library Association Journal
Rodney Earwood and Palmer Cray are joined in destiny from childhood to death. That death comes very early for Rodney Earwood at the wheel of the car driven by his best friend Palmer Cray, an accident fueled by booze and one which finds Palmer Cray’s post-high school experience limited to the cells of Sweetwater Prison. The rest of the story involves Cray’s experience while doing time and his unusual habit of writing regularly to his dead friend, Rodney. The book is well written. Atkins clearly loves to write, for the sake of writing, but he keeps his love directed toward service of the book itself. His descriptions bear witness to that. The author also understands the possibility of sentence structure and uses it to his advantage. Since Atkins teaches English at Georgia Northwestern Technical College we might expect such expertise.
The Compulsive Reader
Atkins’s writing is relaxed, comfortable, and always engaging, at times reminiscent of Barry Hannah or Larry Brown. Indeed, Sweetwater Blues easily stands among the works of these writers as a true Southern “Grit Lit” classic. It is a fast and enjoyable read, at once hilarious and heartbreaking, tough yet tender. The characters are eccentric and well drawn, but most of all, they are the kind of characters that we love (despite their many, many faults) because we can see a little bit of ourselves in them. Like Palmer, we are all flawed, complicated, and maybe even susceptible to a little sloppy luck now and again.
Southern Literary Review
Whether it’s The Front Porch Prophet, Sorrow Wood, Camp Redemption, or Sweetwater Blues, Ray does for the south what Richard Russo does for the North.
Sally Kilpatrick, The Happy Hour Choir
Sweetwater Blues is an original novel about survivor's guilt and the search for redemption. Rodney Earwood and Palmer Cray grew up together in the hills of northern Georgia. They were best friends, all but brothers, until shortly after their graduation from Sweetwater High. A deadly driving accident claimed Rodney's life, leaving Palmer to struggle with the legal, moral, and personal ramifications of his greatest failure. His efforts to find meaning in life after tragedy leads him to encounter other individuals on the fringes of society - a meth dealer named Cheddar, a junkyard owner named Ottis Lee, a coffee-can addict named Bay-Annette, and Rodney's own mother, now afflicted with Alzheimer's. Heart-touching and soulful, Sweetwater Blues is a story of the human quest for hope, highly recommended.
Midwest Book Review
I have become a huge fan of Ray Atkins. It all began last year when I dove headlong into his novel, Camp Redemption. I mean, I love details. I love imagery. Even more than that, I love references to growing up in the South. Like Camp Redemption, Sweetwater Blues is filled with all of those things and much more, and it makes for one of the best books I have read all year long. There’s only one other author I can think of that I have to read everything he writes, and that is Stephen King. Now there is a second author I am stalking. Raymond Atkins is that good.
Michael Buffalo Smith, Kudzoo Magazine
This new novel once again impressed with the undeniably beautiful descriptions of people and their settings. Atkins writes with watercolor words and fills his book with pictures that create a total world for the reader. Atkins writes about the ordinary man and lifts him up by his ethics and morality. He does not create idyllic characters but rather gives us the ordinary presented in extraordinary ways. It is impressive to behold and makes the reader feel better about humanity overall.
Jackie K. Cooper, Huffington Post
Raymond has the creation of wordplay down to a fine art. His words are magic and honey to the ear. I know that sounds sappy, but there are certain authors whose words just flow so beautifully and amusingly - and I've said again and again he has that knack. As with all Raymond books so far, Idgie highly recommends this one. Dew on the Kudzu
Sweetwater Blues is a compassionate novel that asks the reader to go beyond the headlines on the nightly news to the human story. Atkins created a brilliant character in Palmer Cray, who insists the reader suspend his or her judgment and listen to what he has to say.
Ann Hite, Ghost On Black Mountain and The Storycatcher
Raymond Atkins is a marvel. As one of Georgia’s most talented authors, he magically weaves complex stories from believable characters. You know the people he writes about; they are flawed, complicated, and real. From the first page to the last, Sweetwater Blues takes the reader on a journey filled with consequences, courage, and redemption. Using his remarkable wit and masterful gift of storytelling, Atkins brings us full circle. When you close this book you will wonder, what else has he written? Then you will rush out to buy his other award-winning books.
Renea Winchester, Farming, Friends & Fried Bologna Sandwiches and In the Garden with Billy
Told with the sureness and wit of a modern-day Mark Twain, Sweetwater Blues stakes its place among American classics. Thank you, Raymond Atkins, for taking me on a coming-of-age journey every bit as hilarious, honest, bittersweet, and wise as that of Huck Finn on his raft—and from a prison cell, no less.
Lynn Cullen, Mrs. Poe
Like an Otis Redding tune, Sweetwater Blues will seduce the willing. Raymond Atkins is one of Georgia's natural wonders - a crackling-wise writer, who invokes laughter and invites imagination. Sweetwater Blues is a frolicking good read, sure to be a hit among convict book clubs nationwide.
Karen Spears Zacharias, Mother of Rain