7 Novels Featuring Power Duos
Drew Buxton, author of "So Much Heart," recommends buddy stories
During a workshop for one of the stories in my new collection, So Much Heart, my professor said, “And now, from Drew, we have another wacky couple adventure.” I laughed, but on the inside, I suddenly felt self-conscious, thinking my stories were too similar to each other. He was right. There are a lot of duos in the book—a Tulsa couple caught in the crosshairs of the ghost of a killer whale, siblings trying to escape their dying Nevada hometown, two guys who bond at an OCD treatment center over their mutual struggle with the disorder.
After class, my friend (and beloved former EL intern) Chris Vanjonack said having a lot of buddy stories isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s an accepted trope in movies—a rich tradition, even. Examples include Sideways, Thelma and Louise, A Simple Favor, and 48 Hours. We thought maybe I could just lean into it. I even briefly considered titling the collection “Buddy Stories”.
For as established a trope the duo is in film, you don’t often hear books described in these terms. I wanted to shine a light on some great books about duos—odd couple books; buddy books, if you will.
The Trees by Percival Everett
Two detectives from the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation are sent to the tiny town of Money, where the local sheriff appears to have bungled a murder investigation. They figure it will be simple to sort out and they’ll be out of there in a few days, and as Black men in rural Mississippi, they can’t wrap the case up soon enough. But as they dig deeper into the evidence, the less clear things become as a supernatural force seems to be at work. Everett has fun here playing with buddy-cop tropes—ball-busting partners who are paired because they can’t work with anyone else; the big-time state police coming in and thumbing their noses at the local squad. In Everett’s deft hands, though, these genre elements add up to much more than a typical action plot. He takes these cliches and turns them on their head in this brilliant exploration of the South’s legacy of lynching.
Loudermilk by Lucy Ives
Troy Augustus Loudermilk is accepted to the country’s most elite creative writing program, but the thing is, he didn’t write the poems in his application packet. His best friend Harry did. The scheme is to combine Harry’s brilliance with Troy’s beauty and charisma to take over the academic literary world. This is a true odd-couple buddy comedy in the tradition of Twins, a fitting framework with which to take on the absurdity and pretension of the MFA world.
The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish by Katya Apekina
When their mother is hospitalized after a suicide attempt, sisters Edith and Mae are sent to live with their father. Mae is excited to reunite with him, while the older Edith is resentful and wants to return home to Louisiana to be by their mother’s side. The only constant the sisters have is each other, but as the dark truth of their parents’ relationship is unveiled, their conflicting loyalties threaten to tear them apart. The opening half of this book, more than any I’ve ever read, perfectly captures that feeling of powerlessness that comes with childhood. We have little say in or understanding of the circumstances of our lives—moves, divorces, parents’ mental states. The story told is from various perspectives and points in time through letters, diary entries, and short passages. Expertly paced, Apekina doles out information little by little to gradually build a sense of dread in the reader.
Biloxi by Mary Miller
As Louis enters old age, his life crumbles around him. His father dies, his wife leaves him, and his financial situation becomes unstable. He goes to great lengths to avoid running into people he knows and generally prefers to be alone in his house, watching reality TV. A literal wrong turn somehow leads to him taking in Layla, an overweight mutt of indeterminate age. A bond slowly forms between man and dog, and Louis’ outlook on life begins to brighten. Written in the first person, Miller perfectly taps into the voice of an old curmudgeon and takes advantage of all the comedic potential that comes with that. In lesser hands, this story could’ve easily been sappy, but with Miller, it is touching but at the same time gritty and raw.
Teenager by Bud Smith
Kody and Tella decide to leave it all behind—the stints in juvie, their abusive pasts. They’re teenagers and they’re in love. Using stolen cars, they travel from the East Coast to the West and get in various misadventures along the way. This is a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde story—Badlands set in the 21st century—but Smith’s vision of America, told in tight, spare prose, makes it feel wildly original. A road trip is such a perfect tool to explore intimacy between two characters, a tool which Smith wields flawlessly. Like the best road trip stories, Teenager feels alive and free. As the reader, you’re along for the ride, and anything could happen.
Brother & Sister Enter the Forest by Richard Mirabella
Growing up, Willa always looked after her brother, Justin, while they endured their difficult childhood. As an adult, she’s created a steady life for herself as a nurse, but Justin is lost after his toxic boyfriend commits an unspeakable act. When he suddenly shows up at her doorstep, she is torn between wanting to help and not wanting to disrupt the peace she’s worked so hard to build for herself. In Justin, Mirabella has rendered a fully dimensional character. Justin has suffered, but he is not a perfect victim—flawed, human. Mirabella precisely captures the complex feeling of loving someone but struggling to deal with some of their traits, the loss felt when a loved one no longer resembles your memory of them from childhood.
Jawbone by Mónica Ojeda, translated by Sarah Booker
Fernanda and Annelise are as close as friends can get, intimate in a way that only adolescent friends can be. They lead a clique of girls at an exclusive prep school in Ecuador who spend most of their free time hanging out in an abandoned building. Driven by boredom, they dare each other to perform dangerous feats like jumping from high places and getting choked unconscious. Ojeda gradually cranks up the psychological horror when the sinister teacher Miss Clara decides to abduct Fernanda. The book is a fascinating mix of old and new. Though there are many nods to horror legends like Poe and Lovecraft, the details of the story are incredibly modern, like Annelise’s obsession with creepypastas. This combination, along with Ojeda’s flair for arresting imagery, results in a truly unique novel.