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Mon July 18, 2005
A difficult, but truthful, look at life in the Mississippi Delta. Comes with a "warning label."
By Don Noble
Junior Ray is an odd book.
It comes like a pack of cigarettes, with what amounts to a warning label. Even the publishers seem afraid of this book.
The promotional materials say things like, ?This book is not for the squeamish,? and, boy, is that the truth.
Junior Ray begins like a 19th-century fiction, with faux verisimilitude.
Owen G. Brainsong, a professor of ?Anthropological Philology,? writes in the introduction that he is studying the journals of a Leland Shaw, after obtaining them from Junior Ray Loveblood, who was Deputy Sheriff of Mhoon County, Mississippi, during the late 40s and 50s.
The novel contains a number of excerpts from these journals, but is mainly the transcription of a long interview with Junior Ray, conducted in the 1980s, when Loveblood is 62.
The journals are lyrical, metaphysical, sometimes poetic. Shaw is a WWII combat veteran who has returned from Europe but believes himself to still be there and is hiding out from the Germans in an abandoned silo filled with cotton seed.
Shaw also writes of what may be his occasional ability to escape the time-space continuum and literally disappear through a kind of wormhole.
Many are searching for Shaw, with a variety of motives.
Junior Ray wants to kill him, but it?s nothing personal.
?I don?t know if I ever fully understood it myself. All I know is turkeys and deer didn?t count, that was hunt?n. Killin? a man, though, seemed like there was somethin? what you might call basic about it. . . . The question was how to do it in the line of duty.? But he failed in his mission: ?I guess I just feel watchacall unfulfilled.?
Junior Ray Loveblood is awful.
He is a violent, racist, cruel, vicious, misogynistic, sexist, misanthropic, vulgar, vulgar man.
I feel I should spend half of this review warning people not to read the book.
Loveblood is wildly unreconstructed.
He uses the N-word about 300 times, no joke, in 158 pages. And there are no cursewords not found in this book, on every page. There are even some accounts of bestiality with sheep and cows.
Do not say I didn?t warn you.
On the other hand, and there has to be one, although Junior Ray is hateful, he is sometimes very funny and, on occasion, insightful into the class and race workings of Delta society.
Harry Crews, who has written several brilliant books of this very sort, says, ?It is primitive fiction of the sort one rarely sees. More?s the pity. Underneath this violent language and narrative, there is a sweet truth that deserves to be read.?
?Sweet truth? may be a bridge too far, but there are truths. Loveblood is a racist redneck, but he has some interesting remarks to make about planters.
?All them planters was kin and connected and all them [bleeps] was connected: and if you ast me, all them [bleeps] and planters was kin and connected with each other if you really thought about it and saw how many of em damn near looked alike.?
Faulkner handles this theme differently, of course.
Of bankers, Loveblood says, ?Hell, I hate bankers worse?n I hate [bleeps], ?cause, at least when a [bleep] steals somethin?, he?s got a good heart: well normally, anyway. But a banker, he ain?t got no [bleeping] heart at all . . . about as much feeling as a buzz saw.?
Junior Ray will remind one of Faulkner?s Jason Compson. He is venomous, resentful, but sometimes comic in his bitterness, and hates his job as a security guard at a Mississippi casino. As awful as he is, he knows the Delta and the people in it, has watched it every day of his life.
Finally, about this novel. It is really not for everyone. In fact, it may be for hardly anyone, in these politically correct times. If you pick it up, handle with care.
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.