By Michael Farris Smith
Little, Brown and Company / 2018
Reviewed by Brown Burnett
Odds are you have never visited Jack Boucher’s world. Certainly you wouldn’t want to live there. Michael Farris Smith’s latest book, “The Fighter,” not only takes you into that world, it also drops you off there. Smith’s fourth novel is set in deepest, darkest Mississippi and from the beginning, you see that you’d better “hang on” as you go on an odyssey of just about every brand of sleaze imaginable.
We immediately see Jack, a back-alley professional fist-fighter, damaged in mind, body and spirit. He’s “over the hill,” and knows it in the most brutal of professions. He suffers splitting headaches from brain damage, treating himself with pills and cheap whiskey. He’s on the lam from an all-reaching mob boss and to top it all off, the most important person in his life is dying in a nursing home. Each day brings more misery to this broken man and if he ever had a dream other than staying alive, the author keeps it hidden. When a novel begins at night in a pickup truck, being driven by a man who was left at a thrift drop-off as a toddler . . . well . . . you get the drift. Grim enough for you?
There are also strippers, carnies, brass knuckles and dog fights as one dirty character and situation leads to another. There are no “dead ends” on Jack’s road, just more brutality.
“The Fighter” may be one heck of a ride down destiny’s evil path, but it is also a fascinating ride. Michael Farris Smith’s talent and imagination skillfully pull all of that fear and slime together and into the full spectrum of emotions You actually ARE in that truck with Jack, you FEEL his shattered emotions, his tortured past, his pain and his fears. But underneath all of Jack’s tragedy and pain, you also get glimpses of his mysterious ability to love as well as his blind courage that are nothing short of remarkable.
This is a “page turner,” but you have to turn the pages slowly. It is to be savored. Filled with such subplots and startling characters, it pulls you into Jack’s world and you have this terrifying but wonderful sense of hurtling toward a deadly crossroads.
Smith’s descriptive powers are nothing short of remarkable. Each page, each sentence is rich with imagery as well as the smallest but most important details of the characters’ lives. You may begin turning the pages slowly but you are quickly so immersed in “The Fighter” you just might find yourself hungry to hear even more details. As always with these novels, there is also the over-reaching question of whether or not Jack finds “redemption.”
Books about Southern clandestine wickedness are often described as “grit lit” and while the authors of “grit lit” smile at the label, the reader who invests time, patience and emotions in books such as “The Fighter” know that calling these books “grit lit” is like calling a classic Lamborghini, “some kinda old car.” You might even look in the mirror and wonder if you have some of “The Fighter’s” darkness, courage and grit inside your soul.
If Smith has been flying “under the radar,” as has been said, he’s fully visible now. This is not to be missed. Take your time. It’s worth it.
Brown Burnett is a former newspaper editor and writer. He lives in Memphis.
The Wrong Heaven
By Amy Bonnaffons
Little, Brown and Company / 2018
Reviewed by Courtney Miller Santo
We have grown weary of realism.
The way things are is no longer enough—readers crave the supernatural, the magical, that which is in addition to or beyond what we know. As we transitioned for one century to the next, a number of writers, most notably Aimee Bender, Steven Millhauser, George Saunders, and Karen Russell, began to draw from the delightful dominance of Nikolai Gogol’s narrators, the smattering of the absurd in John Cheever’s works and to those outliers (Donald Barthalame, Kurt Vonnegut) who were welcomed into the cannon despite their refusal to write small, quiet stories about the middling emotions of the middle class.
With her debut collection, Amy Bonnaffons firmly establishes herself as an exceptional disciple of this new literary surreal, where the irreverent positioning of ideas replaces the irrational juxtaposition of images. These ten innovatively structured stories offer delightfully irreverent assessments of matriarchy, liberalism, sex and religion.
The opening story, which gives the collection its name, serves as a lovely echo to Barthalame’s “The Classroom.” In “Wrong Heaven” an elementary school teacher struggles with the question of whether or not Jesus is on her side. The impudence of the story (which includes a plastic light up Mary and Jesus giving advice) is good-natured and feels like a critique from within rather than an attack from the outside.
The most unexpected and delightful story in the collection “A Room to Live In” is a compelling and tender examination of a couple contemplating having children. Bonnaffons is exacting in her sentences. Each contributes beautifully to the magic of the world as the protagonist, Irene, contemplates the difficulties of being a God (if only to wooden miniatures who have had their Pinocchio moment).
It is refreshing (after the torture of so many midcentury men writing badly about sex) to come to this collection where the sex is interesting without being exploitive or reductive. She achieves this most notably with “Black Stone,” a brief, but stunning story that the Greeks would admire for its collusion of sex and death. Bonnaffons deftly addresses the complicated dynamic of power and sex in “The Cleas” and offers the reader insight into sex as exploitation.
There is little that Bonnaffons gets wrong with this collection of stories. She relies on the narrative trick of ending a story in a paused moment too often and the worlds her characters inhabit, despite their absurdity, are perhaps rooted too deeply in the comfortable, but I expect that her future work will find delightful irreverence in discomfort.
“Wrong Heaven” is a welcome addition to the new wave of writers willing to examine our world not as it is, but as it could be. It deserves a spot on your bookshelf—if you need a litmus test listen to the version of “Horse” broadcast as part of a recent The American Life episode. The magic she works in the story of a woman transforming into a horse is not a one trick pony.
Courtney Miller Santo is the author of “Three Story House” and “The Roots of the Olive Tree.” She lives in Memphis, Tennessee, where she teaches creative writing at the University of Memphis.
City of Devils: The Two Men Who Ruled the Underworld of Old Shanghai
By Paul French
Picador / 2018
Reviewed by Joseph B. Atkins
It was 1972, and I was drinking beer with my sergeant in our little base north of Saigon, quietly listening to his war stories when he caught my attention with one word: “Shanghai”. “You were in Shanghai?” I asked. “Yep,” he said, beaming. “1949.”
I pumped him with questions. After all, Shanghai is one of those cities that evoke mystery, intrigue, the exotic. It’s even a verb, something other exotic cities like Marseilles, Casablanca, Kathmandu, and, yes, New Orleans can’t even claim.
He talked about arriving in the port city just before the Communists took over, the crazy scramble before one world ended and another began.
I thought about my old sergeant as I read Paul French’s latest book, “City of Devils: The Two Men Who Ruled the Underworld of Old Shanghai .” It’s a fascinating look at a city that in the 1930s was a freewheeling, expatriate-filled island of gambling, whoring, and partying while the rest of China, and the world for that matter, teetered toward destruction.
A list of the descriptive names people gave Shanghai gives you an idea—the “Paris of the Orient”, the “the insanity of Sodom incarnate”, “the rim of a volcano”, “the city of fear”, and finally “the city of the dead”.
“The neon-bright city feeds off its host of four hundred million peasants barely surviving in China’s fetid hinterlands and laughs at their degradation,” French writes.
The city wouldn’t laugh for long, however, as the Japanese tightened their net around it, and finally after Pearl Harbor in 1941 marched in and took control. Chiang Kai-shek’s “Free China” forces offered little protection against the Japanese hordes as the city’s denizens were “bombed, shot, strafed, burnt, diseased, frozen, and starved,” an attack that included “the worst aerial bombing of a civilian city in history.”
Still, the core story of “City of Devils” takes place just before the Japanese arrive, and it centers on two men who ruled the gambling dens and show palaces with their Russian dancing girls, imported Chicago jazz bands, and countless slots and roulette wheels.
“Dapper Joe” Farren, a showman who wowed audiences with his Astaire-like moves on the dance floor, had escaped the Nazi takeover of his native Vienna and the concentration camps that awaited Jews like him. “Lucky Jack” Riley was the volatile, tough-as-nails Navy vet and escaped con from the USA Midwest who had his fingertips acid-burned to erase his former identity.
Farren controlled the nightclubs, including the one that bore his name, while Riley was Shanghai’s “Slots King”, and they ruled from the western part of Shanghai known as the “Badlands”. The two eventually work together, but what two kings ever worked together very long? They will meet separate fates as the flag of the Land of the Rising Sun unfurls over Shanghai
With this book and his earlier book “Midnight in Peking,” French does for the wartime Far East what novelist Alan Furst has done for wartime Europe. He recreates a danger-ridden, intrigue-filled world endlessly fascinating at this safe distance, if less so for those who suffered through it. “City of Devils” joins a worthy literature about Old Shanghai that includes, of course, André Malraux’s “Man’s Fate” and more recently Tom Bradby’s “The Master of Rain.”
French’s writing is a hardboiled staccato that races along at breakneck speed like a book-length Walter Winchell column. You want him to slow down sometimes, but you’re along for the ride, and you’re damned sure not going to let go.
Joseph B. Atkins is the author of a novel, “Casey’s Last Chance”, and a short-story anthology, “Mojo Rising: Contemporary Writers.” He lives in Oxford, Mississippi, where he is a journalism professor at the University of Mississippi.
Resisting Equality: The Citizens’ Council, 1954-1989
By Stephanie R. Rolph
Louisiana State University Press / 2018
Reviewed by James L. Dickerson
Mississippi’s Exiled Daughter: How My Civil Rights Baptism Under Fire Shaped My Life
By Brenda Travis and John Obee
NewSouth Books / 2018
Reviewed by James L. Dickerson
Here we have two books about the civil rights era in Mississippi, primarily during the 1960s—and they are as different as night and day.
Brenda Travis’s memoir, “Mississippi’s Exiled Daughter: How My Civil Rights Baptism Under Fire Shaped My Life” is co-written by J. Randall O’Brien, a veteran white civil rights activist.
Brenda Travis was an early civil rights activist from McComb, Mississippi, who became a youth leader in the local branch of the NAACP at the young age of sixteen. She worked for black voter registration and she joined in with the Freedom Riders and SNCC for sit-in protests at the local bus station. She was arrested for the protests and jailed, which resulted in her expulsion from her high school. She responded by organizing a walkout at her high school, and from that point her life began a downward spiral.
Travis’s experiences as an early civil rights activist raise troubling questions about the ethics of adult civil rights leaders allowing a 16-year-old girl to be placed in harm’s way and the morality of the state’s decision to send her to the state reformatory for “delinquent Negro youth,” where it was understood she would remain for five years, until she reached the age of twenty-one. In the 1960s, it was common practice for Mississippi officials to send female activists to reformatories or the state prison and to send males to prison or draft them to fight in Vietnam in the hope they would die in the war.
For the most part, the book tells a moving story of one individual’s experiences in the civil rights movement. Where it falters is when it detours with the story of her “rescue” from the reformatory by an Alabama college professor who took her into his home with his wife and children. Without offering court documents or police reports or the explanations of the professor himself, she states she was molested in his home. As reprehensible as that would have been, it detracts from what could have been a powerful statement about the ethics of civil rights leaders using children to advance their agenda and the morality of a state government willing to violate the constitutional rights of juveniles who exerted their rights.
Stephanie R. Rolph’s book “Resisting Equality: The Citizens’ Council, 1954-1989,” offers a history of the infamous segregationist organization that provided white-collar cover for the KKK during the racial violence of the 1960s.
Whereas Travis’s book is an emotional response to the civil rights struggle, Rolph’s book is notable for its lack of passion about its subject matter. Based mainly on Citizens’ Council documents and letters, and Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission files, the books presents the Citizen Councils’ rationale for white resistance to equal rights for descendants of slave families.
Rolph impresses me as a serious scholar—and this is her first book, so she should be cut some slack—but I don’t know how she could write a book about the Citizens’ Council without documenting in her bibliography a single interview, providing evidence of a freedom of information search of FBI files on the Citizens’ Council or its leaders, or acknowledging published information from writers who have more thoroughly investigated the councils’ nefarious activities. Generally speaking, that is a shortcoming of history professors writing history books. They are taught to base their writing on documents, letters, and reports that form a historical record. That is a plausible method of writing histories of government entities, but the Citizens’ Council was a private organization whose goal was to create and distribute disinformation. Basing a book on their records merely perpetuates their original goal of disinformation.
Rolph’s portrait of the Citizens’ Council is disturbing, but to understand why you have to read between the lines of this book. The direction of the book was signaled in the first few pages when the author quoted former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour describing the Council as an anti-KKK organization—and she did so without challenging the statement as a continuation of the disinformation campaign carried out by the Council. The Citizens’ Council, the KKK, and the modern Republican Party collectively have prevented the descendants of slave families in Mississippi from holding statewide elected office for over 140 years, a devastating statistic.
I know from growing up in the Mississippi Delta, where the Citizens’ Council was founded, that the membership of the Council and the KKK were interchangeable. In no way was the Council anti-KKK. As a high school student I recall innocently wondering aloud in the community why black citizens were not allowed to vote. My questions were answered by the police chief who told my mother that members of the Council were unhappy with me and I should keep quiet and ask no more questions.
All these years later, I am still asking the same questions.
James L. Dickerson is co-author with Alex A. Alston of “Devil’s Sanctuary: An Eyewitness History of Mississippi Hate Crimes,” and author of “Dixie’s Dirty Secret,” the first book to document the crimes of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission.
Colonel Tom Parker: The Curious Life of Elvis Presley’s Eccentric Manager
By James L. Dickerson
Sartoris Literary Group
Reviewed by Brown Burnett
It’s been more than 40 years since Elvis Presley’s ignoble death. His music remains timeless. Millions of records have been sold and a two-decade movie career still provides entertainment for generations of fans around the world His concerts are memorable musical landmarks all, but just who was this man who ran Elvis’ career? Col. Tom Parker, has remained a man of mystery for decades.
James L. Dickerson’s book, “Colonel Tom Parker: The Curious Life of Elvis Presley’s Eccentric Manager” pulls Elvis’ shadowy Svengali into the light. It seems that Colonel Parker had his own fascinating life story. It was Parker who steered Elvis career into the stuff of legend, becoming a musical titan for the ages. Parker not only steered Elvis’ career, he also steered Elvis’ money, right into his own personal fortune. Elvis spent most of his life in a bubble created and jealously guarded by Parker. “The Colonel,” as everyone knew him, recognized Elvis naivete from the beginning, managing not just his career and finances but also his personal life. He made sure that Elvis really never “grew up.” Parker kept a watchful eye on Elvis’ “’toys”—the cars, the women, the trappings of superstardom, but Elvis’ health and overall well-being was all but ignored, making Elvis a tragic figure.
We all knew Elvis, but did we really? We really only knew the Elvis that Parker created.
Dickerson’s book begins with the stunning fact, that Parker actually invented himself before taking the reins of Elvis’ life. In fact, Parker was not even an American. He was born Andreas van Kuijk in Holland, a young man who somehow made it to the United States—an illegal alien masterfully blending into the American dream.. He soon was introducing himself as “Tom Parker from Huntington, West Virginia” and began his career of hucksterisms in the 1930s, ducking in and out of hustles which ranged from carnivals to sideshow patent medicines.
Dickerson has spent much of his writing career telling us about American blues, rock, and country music and how it sprouted from the area in the South he calls The Mojo Triangle. When we look at the Mojo Triangle today, so much of it centers around Elvis Presley, the man, the music and the myth. In telling Parker’s dark, but remarkable story, Dickerson takes us into Parker’s mysterious underworld and tells us how “The Colonel” jumped at a chance to take advantage of a naïve young man from Tupelo for more than two decades.
Ever stop to think why Elvis never performed outside of the United States, much less ever left it (except for his highly publicized GI stint in Germany)? And why did Elvis spend much of his career in Las Vegas? Just look to the man in the shadows with the cocked hat and a big cigar. Parker didn’t just cast his shadow over Elvis’ career, he also dealt with stars such as Eddy Arnold and Hank Williams.
Dickerson’s book takes you on a journey into an evil Svergalis’s world and how Elvis’ life, once considered to be the fulfillment of the American Dream, was actually a nightmare of epic proportions, created and controlled by a man whose brilliance was only matched by his lack of a conscience.
It is a tribute to the power of Elvis Presley’s music that it continues to flourish despite Andreas van Kuij –Colonel Tom Parker. .Elvis’ brilliance lives on. Parker’s darkness is just now being revealed.
Whether you are a fan of Elvis Presley on not, this is a book not to be missed.
Parker’s darkness is just now being revealed.
Brown Burnett is a former entertainment editor and reporter for The Commercial Appeal and the Jackson Daily News.
Against the Grain Bombthrowing in the Fine American Tradition of Political Cartooning
By Bill Sanders
Reviewed by Marshall Ramsey
If you want to become an editorial cartoonist, you don’t go to editorial cartooning college. After you decide to chase the mathematically impossible dream of being one, you look around at who is drawing them. You study their work and their lives. You might model your artwork after theirs (until you develop a style of your own). You also see how they project their “voice.” Does their work have bite? Does it say something? Are their opinions well-researched and sound? What do they do to be able to crank out a cartoon every day?
While there are no textbooks to teach these skills, Bill Sanders’ memoir “Against the Grain: Bombthrowing in the Fine American Tradition of Political Cartooning” (foreword by the great Jules Feiffer), is as close as you’re going to get.
I wish I had had it 30 years ago when I got into the business. I’m grateful to have it now. When I first would go to the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists (AAEC) conventions, I’d see Bill. I remember meeting him and him being generous with his time and constructive criticism. I also remember him being a heck of a musician. He also had a cutting wit. I admired him.
I really enjoyed this book. Not just because Bill tells his life story and his take on the historical events over his 56-year career (Bill is retired from the Milwaukee News Sentinel and King Features Syndicate but still draws cartoons regularly. You can see them at sanderscartoon.blogspot.com). I loved reading how he chased and caught his dream.
Bill had some incredible brushes with history while he was a cartoonist during the golden era of newspaper cartooning. He unknowingly was in the restaurant during the Greensboro Woolworth Sit-In (changing his perception of race forever.) There was even a moment when his wife Joyce babysat Jayne Mansfield’s son when she was in North Carolina on a press junket. And he was sent to Vietnam as part of a USO tour (where he not only drew cartoons from the field, but met one of my cartooning heroes, Williard Mullins) I loved reading how his career advanced from Stars and Stripes in Japan to Greensboro, North Carolina to Kansas City to Milwaukee.
While I found all these historical milestones (and more) interesting, what was really meaningful was how they shaped his political viewpoint. Bill’s opinions are smartly formed from years of travel and slung ink. He’s not just a gag cartoonist. He’s a sharp commentator. (and a great athlete and musician).
My favorite part of the book was seeing Bill’s style evolve, grow and improve over his career. Sometimes when you are a cartoonist, your talent follows a bell-curve. His artwork and ideas have continued to improve throughout the years.
“Against the Grain,” is a fascinating look into what makes a good editorial cartoonist. It can be read on many levels and enjoyed on all of them. It’s a history book, an art book and a memoir.
Bill Sanders is a heck of a cartoonist who has written an interesting book. It tells the tale of a cartoonist who’s driven by his passion for his craft and his love of his family. “Against the Grain” is the story of a life well-lived.
Marshall Ramsey is the editorial cartoonist for the Jackson, Mississippi, Clarion-Ledger, a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and the author of several books, including “Fried Chicken & Wine.”
By Ace Atkins
G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Reviewed by James L. Dickerson
“The Sinners” is Ace Atkins’ eighth Quinn Colson crime novel. As fans of the Colson series know, he returned to Mississippi after serving overseas in combat in the U.S. Army to make a career out of law enforcement, only to discover that his worldly experiences are both a hindrance and an aid in fighting crime in a state that has the lowest IQs and highest level of mental illness of any state.
By the time we meet Sheriff Colson again in “The Sinners,” he has lost his top deputy and is finding the going difficult with the so-so deputies he has to work with. As he is getting prepared to marry a woman with “pale green eyes, a strong but delicate jaw, and a smallish, imperfect nose that she’d broken playing softball in high school,” storm clouds roll into his world.
Standing in the way of that blissful marital moment are the Pritchards, a good-for-nothing, white trash family that farms a piece of land not far from town. It is a farm that alternates its corn rows with marijuana rows. Selling the pot are two of the boys, both of whom moonlight as half-crazy, race car drivers.
The problem with growing marijuana instead of importing it from Mexico is that it rubs the local gangsters the wrong way, especially the ones that have topless bars in their business plan, Then, complicating the picture is the syndicate down on the coast that has a business plan that does not take into account the negative publicity garnered by redneck pot farmers.
As all hell breaks loose over the murder of a black man who was caught sniffing around the Pritchards’s farm, Colson realizes the only way he can bring the chaos under control is with the help of his best friend Boom Kimbrough, a black, one-armed vet who drives an eighteen-wheeler that more often than not carries a cargo to or from the syndicate.
Colson has his hands full. Sometimes it is difficult for an honest man in love to figure out what has gone wrong in his life, especially if he is the sheriff of a county that has blurred lines when it comes to right and wrong. Walking the straight and narrow sometimes involves skipping over the occasional rough patch.
I loved this novel. It bristles with energy that snaps at the reader with unpredictable tenacity, a trademark of this author.
In my opinion, Ace Atkin, who has written seven New York Tines bestselling novels, is the best crime fiction writer walking the planet. What sets him apart is his ability to recognize the nuances and complexities of the humanity that is at risk in these turbulent times. Crime fiction can be a limiting genre, but Atkins has elevated it to a high art.
James L. Dickerson is the publisher of NEW ORLEANS REVIEW OF BOOKS, and the author of 35 books. He once served as the bailiff in a brutal murder trial in the Mississippi Delta, at the request of the sheriff, who had a sudden emergency to take care of. “If that boy gives you any trouble, you know what to do,” advised the sheriff as he departed the courtroom.
The Secret to Southern Charm
By Kristy Woodson Harvey
Reviewed by Regina Hutson
The Secret to Southern Charm is book two of the Peachtree Bluff series by Kristy Woodson Harvey. This story takes us on an emotional spin. All sisters have their own problems. Sloane, whose husband is missing in action, comes home to her mother’s home in Georgia to gain emotional and physical support from not only her mother, but her sisters as well. Caroline has her issues with her own family. Her husband cheated on her and it was advertised on television. She is at home with her mother also, staying in the guest house. The younger sister, Emerson, is a movie star, who doesn’t know if she will continue her career. With all of the issues that her children have going on in their own lives, Ansley, their mother, has her own problems; her aging mother is staying with her, and her first love is back in her life.
This book was mostly about Sloane and Ansley, with each chapter going from the past into the present. Sloane’s world changed overnight and I found her to have the faith that I’m not sure many of us could have by believing her husband was alive. Sloane was the first character that pulled at my heartstrings. I was rooting for her and praying that her husband was okay. Sloane also was able to deal with her emotions through her art, which she had put on the back burner after she started her family. She was able to find herself again and be the woman she used to be. Caroline and Emerson had small roles, but you really bond with them, also with Emerson’s health scare and Caroline deciding if she could ever trust her husband again.
Ansley’s story was very moving. She was taking care of her aging mother while she was keeping a secret about who was the father of Sloane and Caroline. She was dealing with her first love and didn’t want to keep him too close while she was taking care of everyone else. She was given a second chance at love with him and I was hoping she was going to grab it. Ansley reconnected with both of her brothers, one of whom she hadn’t spoken with in many years. With her mother dying, they took her by boat to her favorite spot. This had me in tears with them knowing this would probably be the last time.
I loved this book, and I didn’t want to put it down! This series is how being “Southern” is. It was very relatable on so many different levels. I did not want the story to end; they all became friends that I would want to visit and the town would be a place I would definitely visit. I can’t wait for the next one to come out, but in the meantime I will go back and read the first book in the series, Slightly South of Simple. Working in a public library, I have already recommended this book, especially to anyone who is looking for a great beach read.
Regina Hutson is a librarian at Central Mississippi Regional Library System.
By Caleb Johnson
Reviewed by Frank Murtaugh
Every family has a history, but some have more secrets than others. The Treebornes of Elberta, Alabama, have secrets, all born into a community that, according to one member “could constipate the soul.” Caleb Johnson crafts his debut novel fueled by his upbringing in rural Alabama, the place as important as the people it produces. Told across three generations — and three distinct stages along a troubled family tree — Treeborne reminds us that surviving the secrets makes every difference.
“What makes an Elberta peach so sweet, Lee Malone knew, is how long it’s allowed to trouble the tree.”
We’re introduced to Janie Treeborne, 13 years old in 1958 when a family member turns up missing, then well into her golden years in reflecting on the scars that remain. There’s Tammy Treeborne Ragsdale, Janie’s aunt and the wife of Wooten Ragsdale, his right hand maimed in a farm accident, his life story wounded as a Treeborne in-law.
Lest we forget this is the South, where Faulkner’s ghost lurks eternally, there’s Jesse Absalom Treeborne, known casually as Hugh. Tammy’s father and Janie’s grandfather, Hugh, is a patriarch of sorts, one who finds a unique creative outlet, but in a land where creativity either dies quietly or disappears in the hands of profiteers. And there’s Lee Malone, a black man raised by white parents. Hugh’s best friend, Lee is a former singer on the chitlin’ circuit, and a comforting presence for Maybelle Treeborne, Hugh’s wife.
Johnson incorporates temporal shifts — back to 1929, ahead to the present — to gradually draw focus on the Treebornes’ collective fate. The approach accentuates the notion that each of us is merely a product of our predecessors, and those who came before us had the very same crises of conscience we desperately want to claim as our own. “It’s the piling on of moment after moment strung out across all damn-blasted time that leads to what you call true understanding.”
Tammy wants out of Elberta long before Janie considers escaping her hometown, but each belongs to the native soil as much as the peach orchard Lee manages. The Treebornes are not so much from a place, as of a place. And the place haunts.
Johnson writes vividly. “Beyond the trees a spermy cloudtail passed across the moon’s bruised face.” And he manages to capture stresses of the heart, the attachments that build a family and the resentments that can fracture its cross-generational fabric. Family, as we learn from three generations of Treebornes, is hard. And unforgiving.
Misdeeds are harmful when committed by outsiders, and outsiders play major roles in Treeborne, from the local high school football star to a one-eyed cat named Geronimo. A Yankee can’t be trusted, we know. But are we to be surprised when a dead body turns up in a body of water called Dismal Creek?
“Treebornes are a mule-headed bunch,” Tammy tells her sister-in-law, who should know enough, having indeed married one. But survival is what human beings do best. Even Treebornes. Life in Elberta is never elegant, never easy. But sometimes music sounds best when played on a dead man’s guitar.
Memphis resident Frank Murtaugh is the author of Trey’s Company.
A Spy in Canaan
How the FBI Used a Famous Photographer To Infiltrate the Civil Rights Movement
By Marc Perrusquia
Reviewed by James L. Dickerson
Shakespeare did not have a monopoly on the art of betrayal, palace intrigue, or mercenary machinations. Former Memphis cop turned photographer Ernest Withers, who made a name for himself as a civil rights photographer, could match the Bard every step of the way.
For decades, Withers was revered for his images of Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders. But there was another side to Ernest Withers. Of all the photographers in Memphis, white or black, it was Withers who documented the rise of music in the city. He snapped pictures of Elvis in the early days on Beale Street, Elvis with B.B. King, and just about every blues performer you would want to see a photo of. An affable man who also blended in just about any situation, he was always in the right place at the right time.
Memphis’ black population had someone they could be proud of—a civil rights and celebrity photographer who seemed destined for greatness.
Sadly, Withers was living a secret life as a FBI informant. He glad-handed Martin Luther King, then before the day was done he betrayed him by telling the FBI everything that King and his associates were discussing.
Withers’ betrayal of the Civil Rights Movement might never have come to light without the persistence of Marc Perrusquia, a reporter at The Commercial Appeal of Memphis, the once influential morning newspaper that won a Pulitzer in better times for its stance against the KKK. At Perrusquia’s urging, the newspaper sued to obtain Withers’ files from the FBI.
Of course, Withers’ was not the only African American to take money from the FBI to spy on civil rights leaders. In Mississippi, the FBI purchased black spies for as little as $50. Also paying black informants during this time was the racist Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, a super-secret state agency that may have been involved in some of the state’s high-profile civil rights murders.
A Spy in Canaan is an important book and author Perrusquia is to be commended for pursuing the story. The book documents Withers’ activities as an informant and puts his betrayal in perspective. Perrusquia is a reporter, not necessarily a literary writer, so the book suffers at times from being too “journalistic,” but that is a minor criticism considering the accomplishments of the book. It is highly recommended for libraries and anyone interested in the civil rights movement of the 1950s through the 1970s.
James L. Dickerson is the publisher of NEW ORLEANS REVIEW OF BOOKS.
The Past is Never
By Tiffany Quay Tyson
Reviewed by Morgan Lee
When the unyielding heat and humidity of the Mississippi Delta drive siblings Bert, Willet, and Pansy to take a dip in the old rock quarry, they had no idea that only two of them would return. Six-year-old Pansy, the obvious favorite child, has vanished without a trace in the place locals refer to as the Devil’s place because of its sordid Pre-Civil War history.
The entire town looks for Pansy and questions everyone involved to no avail. The quarry is drained and old automobiles, beer bottles, and a few fossils are found, but no body. Their father, who disappears for days at a time selling counterfeit money, is a suspect, but he cannot be found either.
As years go by, guilt-ridden Willet and Bert never stop looking for their sister and when clues from the past resurface, they follow them to the Florida Everglades. Tyson takes readers on a fast-paced journey that blends the past, present, and future and blurs the lines between good and evil as well as fantasy and reality. Tyson personifies guilt in Bert and Willet forces the reader to contemplate the responsibilities of family and the sacrifices people make in the name of love.
This novel also draws parallels between violence and compassion and redemption. Can evil become trapped in a place over time? And can that evil ever be overcome? Will the truth set you free or is it better left buried?
The Past is Never is a dark, lyrical, gothic Southern novel that uses magic realism and folklore to show how people born decades apart can influence and shape each other over time. The novel also explores the nature of families and how the mistakes of the parents shape their children and their perception of the world. Tyson’s stylistic writing and unique voice bring the reader into the heart of the Mississippi Delta and creates an eerie atmosphere similar to that of William Faulkner’s Sanctuary and William Gay’s Twilight.
Tyson effectively tells this story from multiple time periods and viewpoints including Bert and Willet in the 1970s and present day, their Grandma Clem’s journey to becoming a midwife for troubled girls in the 1940s, and an 1863 slave revolt that resulted in the deaths of many.
This book will appeal to fans of mystery, horror, historical fiction, and family dramas. Tyson’s second book is a notable contribution to Southern gothic fiction and I am excited to see what this author will write next. Tyson is a Mississippi native and currently teaches writing at the Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver, Colorado.
Morgan Lee is a librarian at the Central Mississippi Regional Library System.
In the Shadow of Statues
A White Southerner Confronts History
By Mitch Landrieu
Reviewed by Patty Friedmann
~Eighth grader. Received death threats for father’s actions as New Orleans mayor.
~Louisiana state legislator. Served at same time as David Duke.
~Louisiana lieutenant governor. Held office for Katrina.
~New Orleans mayor. Served two terms of recovery, ending spring 2018.
These vita bullets alone qualify Mitch Landrieu to write a definitive front-row-seat history of the politics and history of New Orleans in the past half century. But In the Shadow of Statues is more than a documentation—and very much more than its title about taking down Confederate statues suggests. It is a fine, often lyrical piece of writing, a monument itself. His sad, simple description of what he saw in New Orleans in the four days after Katrina alone is worth the price of the book.
Landrieu calls his full life to date a “journey on race.” By sharing his intermingled personal and professional story, in some measure he uses his milestones to explain how he came to the difficult decision in 2017 to take down four monuments to what were referred to as the “Cult of the Lost Cause.” Best known is the statue of Robert E. Lee atop a pedestal where the famed New Orleans Saint Charles streetcar turns toward downtown; others are P.G.T. Beauregard and Jefferson Davis statues, and the White League obelisk.
Landrieu explores with brutal candor his white-boy life in New Orleans, and his ignorance or epiphanies invariably tie into some facet of the existence of the monuments. But only some facet. He recalls going to City Park and passing the Beauregard statue, seeing it and the surrounding flowers only aesthetically, learning later in life from African American friend Terence Blanchard that it made him feel “less than” others when he passed that statue. He recalls working in the Louisiana legislature after a visit to Auschwitz and seeing David Duke hide his anti-Semitism, able to self-promote by hiding the past.
The past matters, Landrieu said publicly, again and again. (This carries forward not only in regard to the monuments, but also to Landrieu’s unabashed concern about the Trump presidency.) Finally, he recalls his boots-on-the-ground service after Katrina. Landrieu saw abject ruin, comparing all the poor people in plain sight to the confederate monuments “we walked and drove past every day.” When he came to City Hall, the devastation was most visible in the African American-heavy murder rate, a culture of violence, happening, he says, in the shadows of statues.
Landrieu writes, “We cannot change the past, but we are not obligated to cave in to some nostalgia-coated idea that a statue is a good thing because it’s old. Symbols matter.” Five courts, 13 judges, David Duke protests, no cranes, belligerent calls—yet Landrieu took down the monuments. Regardless of melanin, no one is better qualified to tell this story.
Like Barack Obama in 2004, Mitch Landrieu is not going to quit his day job to write gorgeous books. But he has the bona fides. He could.
Patty Friedmann is a New Orleans resident and author of Where Do They All Come From?
A Good Life All the Way
By Ryan White
Touchstone / Simon & Schuster
Reviewed by Brown Burnett
There is no getting around the fact that Ryan White’s book is an epic—a sprawling meticulously detailed travelogue through music history that peels back some answers to the questions of just who IS Jimmy Buffett and how did he get where he is today?
Buffett’s life journey is one of trials, tribulations, luck, savvy, courage and, most of all, persistence. A Good Life All the Way stretches back to his 19th century ancestors. We see Buffett as a vagabond college student bouncing around Mississippi, Alabama and Florida in the 1960s and 70s; a struggling songwriter who couldn’t navigate the treacherous waters of the Nashville music industry; and also a self-proclaimed musical “pirate” roaming around the Florida Keys, putting anchor down in Key West, long before Key West was the tourist mecca it is today.
Whenever life would throw lemons at Buffett, not only would he make lemonade, he would sell it back to the throwers at a handsome profit, with them loving it and begging for more. That’s how he eventually conquered Nashville. White’s book is heavy with detail but so well-chronicled, you will think you are riding beside Buffett on his long, and still winding road to legendary status.
Buffett has been a “name” for well over 40 years so he has a “Zelig”-like list of names and places. He’s friends with Presidents and virtually all musicians, past, present and future want to be in his company personally and professionally. He was even pals with the late legendary newsman Walter Cronkite, a fact that stunned and opened this jaundiced eye. It is no stretch at all to say that Buffett knows everybody and everybody knows him. Even I have met him, even if just in passing.
He has always been generous with his fellow artists. Mac McInally and Keith Sykes are among the many who befriended him along the way, profiting artistically, professionally and personally with Buffett’s mentorship. Having known more than one musician who worked for Buffett (and who hasn’t?), they all agree that the man knows his business as well as his art. Buffett’s success, and his charm, lies in the undeniable fact that he has long mastered the art of getting everyone—fellow musicians, employees, employers, friends, strangers and even skeptics —to simply have a good time.
The image of Buffett I have had in my mind for decades is just like the one on the cover of White’s book: a tanned Buffett, guitar in his lap, smiling from ear to ear behind sunglasses, beckoning everyone to “come over and have some fun”. And the millions all around the globe who have been at his concerts and bought his music attest to the fact that it’s impossible to hear his music or see him perform and NOT have a good time. In today’s crazy, frantic and information-drenched world, we need Buffett now more than ever.
And the aforementioned “business” also refers to an entrepreneurial empire Buffett has meticulously built over the years. The nightclubs and restaurants and other enterprises that bear his name have flowered for many years. There’s a long list of celebrities whose outside business enterprises have failed, but Buffett’s success in those ventures have put him in rarefied air indeed.
White’s book is not an easy read. It’s dense and detailed, but is worth the time you put into it. Jimmy Buffet: A Good Life All the Way chronicles an extraordinary American success story, and a living legend. Parrot Heads (Buffett’s devoted followers) will read things they probably didn’t know about their hero, but those such as myself, who sunburn easily and all too often forget to have fun, will discover and appreciate a truly remarkable man and artist. We are all indeed fortunate to be living in the time of Jimmy Buffett.
Brown Burnett is a journalist who lives in Memphis. He has written extensively about music.
Where Do They All Come From?
By Patty Friedmann
Sartoris Literary Group
Reviewed by Sheryl Stump
Where do they all come from? is an anthology of fifteen short stories. Patty Friedmann is a native of New Orleans, Louisiana, and sets most of the stories in this book in New Orleans. The anthology is a mix of nine previously published stories and six new stories. The author shares her love of New Orleans with her readers through a cast of wacky characters, such as the puppet maker and puppeteer in the story “The Holy Assumption of Mr. Tinsel,” and absorbing events, as in the storyline of “Ashes, Ashes.”
The stories frequently center on family, usually dysfunctional family, like the family in the story “Just So Much”. Another frequent theme is death and dying and the characters’ reaction to it, as in the stories “The Japanese Plum Tree” and “Fig Preserves”. A couple of the stories deal with life after Hurricane Katrina, as in the story “Under the Belljar”.
Many of Friedmann’s stories contain an admixture of quirkiness, with elements of dark humor. Most of the stories contain startling surprise endings that this reviewer hesitates to explain, lest the surprise be ruined. These stories are truly enjoyable.
The author leaves the meaning of the title of the book up to the reader. One interpretation could be the author asking where all the characters come from or perhaps where all the stories come from.
This book is recommended to a general readership, but especially for those with an interest in New Orleans and those who love New Orleans.
Sheryl Stump is Cataloger/Associate Professor at Delta State University.