Ike Randolph used to be known as Riot in the streets, but now he’s far from that life. He has behaved like an exemplary citizen for 15 years and owns a landscaping business. Still, the ink on the back of his hand constantly reminds him of his past as a gangbanger, the things he did, and the years he spent in prison. When a cop knocks on door, Ike hears it, but it’s Riot who reacts with fear. Instead of legal trouble, what Ike gets from that knock is much worse: the news that his son Isiah has been brutally murdered, along with Isiah’s white husband, Derek. While Ike and Isiah rarely spoke and Ike was angered by his son’s sexuality, the death breaks him.
Meanwhile, Buddy Lee Jenkins, Derek’s father, goes through the same experience. A divorced alcoholic with a criminal record and serious health problems living in a dilapidated trailer, Buddy Lee was also far from a loving, accepting father to Derek. Despite being from different worlds, the pain of their loss brings Ike and Buddy Lee together, and they start looking into the murder of their sons. What they discover leads them on a path of righteous violence and vengeance as they come to terms with who they were as fathers and accept that everything they thought about and said to their sons was wrong.
In Razorblade Tears, grief, guilt, and revenge are the driving energies that propel the narrative and its characters forward at all times. In fact, guilt is so present it eventually becomes a character in the novel, a silent, omnipresent force that fuels Ike and Buddy Lee as they unflinchingly take on a growing number of threatening individuals who want to keep them from figuring out who shot their sons. But guilt does more than drive the fathers’ quest for vengeance. Ike and Buddy Lee are forced to fight with the fact that they can’t make amends because their kids — the kids they loved but failed to love the way they wanted to be loved and deserved to be loved — are no longer alive. Isiah and Derek are ghosts that haunt their fathers silently. Their absence is a constant reminder that their shattered relationships were entirely Ike and Buddy Lee’s fault, and that saying you’re sorry once someone is no longer around isn’t satisfying at all and doesn’t fix the moments you lost nor give you a chance to have the relationships you never cared to build.
Cosby has a deep understanding of homophobia and deals with it brilliantly here. When the narrative starts, Ike and Buddy Lee talk about their sons but refuse to call them gay, homosexual, or members of the LGBTQ+ community. Instead, they describe them as “different,” “that way,” and “like that.” As the story progresses and they come to terms with the fact that their sons were amazing, successful men who loved each other, they also start to understand that there is absolutely nothing wrong with being gay, and that begins to make them react violently every time they encounter someone who shows a bit of the homophobia they spewed at their sons for years. And yes, they are painfully aware of how ironic that is.
While the way Cosby handles the generational and cultural differences in terms of understanding and accepting the LGBTQ+ community are brilliant and timely, he doesn’t stop there. Ike is Black and Buddy Lee is a white man from a racist family, and as they fight together to avenge their sons, they learn about each other. For example, Buddy Lee says a lot of things that could be construed as racist, but he doesn’t see himself as one. For Buddy Lee, “when you grow up around people — your aunts and uncles, your grandparents, your brothers and sisters, your friends — all of them saying things that you don’t even think about being wrong or right, you don’t put that title on yourself.” The two fathers discuss the differences in the way they live, see life, and are treated by cops, for example, and as they’re exposed to other perspectives, they grow and change some of their views, proving that age is not an impediment when it comes to growth and acceptance.
The Black experience is centered in Razorblade Tears, but it shares the spotlight with the LGBTQ+ experience and even the poor white experience. Buddy Lee is an interesting, nuanced character that shows that white privilege isn’t the same for all whites. While some of the secondary characters live in big houses, Buddy Lee doesn’t. In a way, he embodies class resentment, and he speaks about it as — if not more — aggressively than he speaks about anything else. Here are his thoughts after the detective looking into his son’s murder tells him he understand his pain:
A white-hot rage flamed in his chest like a shattered hurricane lamp. This fucking cop with his crisp white shirt and his pleated pants with a crease sharp enough to slice bread wanted to talk to him about loss? This pretty boy who didn’t look like he would know what hard times were if they came up and spit in his goddamn face? This preppy-looking son of a bitch who probably never missed a Christmas with his family and played touch football every Thanksgiving like a goddamned Kennedy? This guy who had nice middle-class sex with his wife every other Friday night? Who never had to tell his spoiled brat of a daughter they didn’t have enough money for the doll baby she wanted?
Razorblade Tears is a book that, like Cosby’s preceding novel, Blacktop Wasteland, looks at race and parenthood while delivering a fast-paced thriller with plenty of violence. It is also a narrative that cements Cosby as one of the most honest and steadfast chroniclers of the Black experience in the rural South.
Gabino Iglesias is the author of Coyote Songs and Zero Saints.