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Tyler James Williams (center) in "Dear White People."
Photo courtesy Roadside Attractions
Tyler James Williams (center) in Dear White People.

One hundred and fifty years after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and 50 years after Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, race is still the great specter haunting the American experiment. Abortion, gun rights, universal health care: Add them all together and they can’t begin to trouble the American soul the way race does. It’s a minefield not even the country’s first black president wants to walk through.

Which means that any movie daring enough to go there deserves applause. Take writer-director Justin Simien’s debut feature, Dear White People, a satire about crumbling race relations at an elite university, which started as a trailer on the Internet, earned its initial budget through crowdfunding, and went on to win a special jury prize at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. Recognizing that even 25 years after the release of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, Hollywood’s interest in black stories is still limited to plots that Simien describes as “an inner-city kid with a gun or a movie about slavery”—movies in which the protagonists are either sinners or saints—the Houston native set out to write a movie about black characters who contain contradictions. It’s hard to believe that’s still a revolutionary notion in the 21st century, but here we are.

Kyle Gallner and Tessa Thompson in "Dear White People."
Photo courtesy Roadside Attractions
Kyle Gallner and Tessa Thompson in “Dear White People.”

Dear White People, which was just released on DVD, is a compelling, if uneven, comedy/drama that gets caught somewhere between the two, but is brave enough to ask questions about race, identity and authenticity that no one else wants to ask. The movie doesn’t claim to have all the answers, and even acknowledges that at this point there may not even be answers. Even if nothing is solved by the end of Dear White People, it still feels like something important was said.

Simien’s film follows four African-American protagonists at fictional Winchester University, a predominantly white Ivy League school where it seems that every word and action is racially charged. Sam White is a radical filmmaker and host of a polarizing radio show called “Dear White People,” where she doles out scathing advice to Winchester’s white students, who have no idea where appreciation of black culture ends and appropriation begins. Sam is running for the presidency of her all-black dormitory against Troy Fairbanks, who, as the clean-cut son of the dean of students, is expected to follow a straight and narrow path to success, but who would secretly rather smoke pot and write articles for the campus humor magazine, Pastiche. Fairbanks is joined in his conflicted attraction to rebellion and Pastiche (which is run by a group of privileged white men whose only comedic gift seems to be mistaking racial insensitivity for wit) by Coco Conners, a young woman from an underprivileged neighborhood looking to redefine herself as a post-racial reality TV star. Fame, for her, is the most liberating kind of identity. Writing about all of them is Lionel Higgins, a loner who thinks he’s found his place as a reporter for the school newspaper, but instead becomes the center of a confrontation that threatens to tear apart the campus. Shunning the “saints and sinners” dichotomy, the four leads of Dear White People are a constantly shifting panoply of personalities, allegiances and identities. They are what a literary critic might call fully formed human beings.

Where Simien gives his black characters bottomless complexity, he’s turned their white counterparts into types: the sinister university president claiming American racism is a thing of the past; the tone-deaf students blithely unaware of the thousand and one micro-aggressions to which they subject their black classmates on a daily basis. Where Coco and Sam and Troy and Lionel are plagued by doubts and buoyed by revelations, changing as they go, Dear White People’s white people are static entities, capable of just one trait each. For nearly all of them, that trait is virulent racism, or at least glaring racial ignorance.

That might be Simien’s point: that for black Americans, white culture, in all its blindness, can seem monolithic to the point of indistinction. But making your “other” straw men designed only to prove a point is the best way to turn satire into farce. And Simien’s potential as a filmmaker and social critic is far too great to settle for that.

Will Evans in a Deep Vellum promotional video.
Photo courtesy of Deep Vellum Publishing
Will Evans in a Deep Vellum promotional video.

Dallas, you had better get to know Will Evans. That is, if you can catch up with him, and if he’s calm enough to engage in conversation. He doesn’t move or speak at the speed to which you’re accustomed, but if he has his way—and one gets the sense that he usually does—he and his new nonprofit translation press, Deep Vellum, will put you on the literary map.

Evans and I met in Manhattan on a bitterly cold November night. He was there for a panel discussion at the Americas Society between Texas literary eminence Rolando Hinojosa-Smith and Mexican writer Carmen Boullosa, whose border novel, Texas: The Great Theft, translated from Spanish by Words Without Borders co-founder Samantha Schnee, is Deep Vellum’s first book. An intense travel schedule—Frankfurt, London, South Korea and points all around the U.S.—coupled with the nasty Yankee wind should have had Evans, 31, worn down. But if he was worn down, I’d hate to see him riled up. At rest, Evans’ chevron mustache is glorious; when he talks, that ’stache becomes a blur.

Chad Post, the notoriously speed-talking host of the international-literature podcast Three Percent, says, “My god, it’s insane; he’s way more hyper than I am. And I used to think I was pretty hyper.” He still is. I try and fail to imagine keeping pace with the two of them in the Rochester, New York, office of Post’s own translation press, Open Letter, where Evans spent the summer of 2012 learning the business as an apprentice. Post makes it sound simple: “We watched a lot of Euro Cup soccer and talked about publishing, and that led to the creation of Deep Vellum.”

Post is one of six Deep Vellum board members, three of whom are located in Dallas, where Evans moved in 2013 after his wife took a job in the city. Once he learned of the pending relocation, his plans to become a book publisher crystallized and he adopted a new mantra: “Going to Dallas, gotta start a press.”

Moving to Dallas to start a press—of any kind, much less a translation press—is about as common a goal as moving to Dallas for the ocean breeze. A Google search for Dallas publishers brings up a handful of vanity presses, a “boutique” or two, and a 2012 D Magazine piece covering “niche publishers”—a term Evans wouldn’t apply to Deep Vellum. “I hate when people say that,” he says. “I’m not a niche publisher. When we talk about translation as just this special thing, then it gets put in this ghetto.”

But translation in the United States is a special thing, if only in that it’s uncommon. Just 1 percent of all books published annually in the U.S. are translated fiction, and only 3 percent are translations of any genre. This so-called 3 percent problem is no nearer to being solved than it was in 2003, when The New York Times ran an article with the headline “America Yawns at Foreign Fiction,” in which Cliff Becker, former director of literature at the National Endowment for the Arts, said, “It is not an exaggeration to refer to this as a national crisis.” It’s “outright dangerous,” Becker continued, for citizens of “the most powerful country the world has known” to be so willfully ignorant of the literature, and by extension the culture, of other nations.

Many, including Evans, lay much of the blame at the feet of the corporate publishing industry, which focuses more on profit than on the promotion of cultural awareness. “This machine is just churning out garbage,” Evans says. “Ninety-five percent of those books the Big Five publish aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.”

To Evans, solving that crisis starts at the local level. “Dallas has a robust nonprofit community and arts community, but what it doesn’t have are any literary publishers,” he says. “It has a rich literary history, and it’s just a matter of tapping back into it. I don’t think people care if a book is translated or not. The question isn’t how can you get people reading translations, it’s how can you get people reading good books again?”

That’s a question that Ed Nawotka, a member of Deep Vellum’s board and editor of Publishing Perspectives, a trade publication focused on international literature, struggles with as well. “The American reading public isn’t closed off to translated literature,” he says. “It’s closed off to challenging literature.”

Texas: The Great Theft by Carmen Boullosa Deep Vellum Publishing $15.95; 304 pages
Deep Vellum Publishing
Texas: The Great Theft
by Carmen Boullosa
Deep Vellum Publishing
$15.95; 304 pages

“Challenging” is an accurate way to describe Boullosa’s 15th novel, her fifth to be translated into English. Loosely fictionalizing the 1859-1861 “Cortina Wars” near Brownsville and Matamoros, Texas: The Great Theft bombards the reader with many dozens of characters, most of whom get little more than a passing mention. The voice is a hazy first-person plural, a “we” that includes the reader through a style reminiscent of a screenwriter relating her plotline: “It’s under these circumstances that our story takes place,” for instance. The narration is sometimes omniscient, sometimes not, and choosy about what it divulges. But we usually know where its loyalties lie, which is not often with the Texans, that “handful of palefaces, struggling to cope with a sun that assaulted their senses, [who] acted like they were the center of the world.”

The ensemble cast and smash-cut action make for a whirlwind reading experience. Little wonder that it appealed to someone with so much kinetic energy. “I said that the first book I needed to publish to tell people in Dallas what I’m seriously about would be a novel about Texas written from the Mexican perspective,” Evans says. “[Texas] is as fair a telling of border history as you’ll be able to get. To only think about Texas from the American perspective is to miss Texas, Texas being such an international state, not just for Mexican culture but for all cultures.”

Though not all cultures think of Texas as being, well, cultured. I asked Post if being headquartered in Texas will be a hindrance for Deep Vellum. “To some degree it is,” he says. “When [Evans] initially said he’s starting a press in Dallas, people were like, ‘What? That doesn’t make any sense, Texas is a crazy place, George W. Bush and cowboys; we can’t take you seriously.’”

But people began to take Evans seriously, Post says, after they saw how quickly he began acquiring the rights to foreign books. Deep Vellum has 10 novels slated for 2015 publication, including The Indian by Icelandic comic, former Reykjavik mayor and soon-to-be Texan Jón Gnarr, and The Art of Flight by Mexico’s revered Sergio Pitol. But will Evans find a readership here for books that don’t have the Texas relevance of Boullosa’s?

“Hopefully I can get more people reading my books in Dallas than would ever read them if I were based in New York,” he says. “I’m creating a new readership.”

At present, you don’t see many Dallasites walking around with translations of Icelandic novels. But Evans knows his market. “If I’ve learned one thing about Texas, it’s that Texans are proud of Texas,” he says. “It’s not just the cowboy chest-thumper mentality; it’s that we like to support things going on within the state. We like to drink Texas wine, drink Texas beer, eat Texas food, go on Texas road trips. There’s no other state that has a culture of literature named after itself like Texana. That’s a special thing.”

WellsBrownothersiderebelyell

The National Book Critics Circle announced its 2014 awards finalists on Monday, and three Texas writers made the cut:

— Houston’s Lacy M. Johnson, in the Autobiography category, for her harrowing abuse memoir, The Other Side

— Austin’s S.C. Gwynne, in the Biography category, for Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson

— Dallas’ Ezra Greenspan, in the Biography category, for William Wells Brown: An African-American Life

The Observer reviewed both The Other Side and William Wells Brown last year

The full list of NBCC Award finalists is here.

The NBCC Awards dinner will be held, and winners announced, March 12, 2015, in New York City.

 

 

With the out-of-town madness of the Austin City Limits and Fun Fun Fun festivals comfortably behind us, and the madness of South By Southwest comfortably distant, it’s set to be a comparatively quiet few months for music aficionados here in Austin. As we fall back on the rich everyday rhythm of local concerts, it’s a good time to take a step back and contemplate the musical landscape of Texas as a whole.

oxford-american-157 (1)On Dec. 9, at 6 p.m., Oxford American magazine will debut its Texas Music issue at Waterloo Records and Video on North Lamar. Several of the issue’s contributors will be there to read from their respective pieces, among them Wimberley writer and Texas historian Joe Nick Patoski, whose occasional contributions to The Texas Observer include a 2006 interview with another Oxford American-Texas Music contributor, Austin Chronicle co-owner and SXSW cofounder Louis Black. Patoski writes about Willie Nelson drummer Paul English in the issue. Black writes about Daniel Johnston.

Michelle Garcia—a new Texas Observer columnist starting in the January issue—has a long and lovely piece about Tejano music in the issue. She’ll be on hand for a read-and-mingle as well.

The magazine’s companion anthology album—always an eclectically curated highlight of the Oxford American‘s annual music issues, of which the current iteration is the first devoted solely to Texas—features a stylistic gamut encompassing Los Super 7 and Spoon, Kinky Friedman and Sarah Jarosz, Buddy Holly and Ornette Coleman, Johnny Winter and Barbara Lynn. Texas music is way too expansive a turf to wrap up in a single 25-song sampler, but as 25-song samplers go, this one is exceptional.

Both the issue and the album will be available for sale at Waterloo. There will also be an autograph session with the featured writers.

Bill KingIt’s been hard going for moderates lately. The 2014 election cycle was the latest in a long series of culls, as hardline Republicans pushed their more conciliatory colleagues out of office and solidified their ideological hold on Congress. State governments haven’t necessarily fared any better: Texas now finds itself saddled with both national Sen. Ted Cruz (who recently derided net neutrality as “Obamacare for the Internet”—a statement so cynical it transcends mere idiocy) and Lt. Gov.-elect Dan Patrick, a man publicly pushing the idea that ISIS insurgents are sneaking across the Mexican border. The inmates have been running the asylum for a while; it was only a matter of time before they went off their meds.

Bill King argues that this situation is politically untenable and, more to the point, isn’t what people want. His new book, Unapologetically Moderate: My Search for a Rational Center in American Politics, collects a series of columns King wrote during an ongoing stint at the Houston Chronicle. In sections on immigration reform, health care and gun control, King hammers home a few central themes: Our nation is fundamentally centrist; our politics don’t reflect that truth; as a result, policy suffers and voters disengage.

King himself has a background in politics as a two-term mayor of Kemah, and he’s considered a possible contender in the 2015 Houston mayoral election. He’s also something of a wonk, with experience in business (he was president of Southwest Airport Services) and public policy (including a position with the task force that rewrote Houston’s hurricane evacuation plan in the aftermath of Hurricane Rita in 2005).

Reasonableness seems to be King’s guiding principle, and the columns collected in Unapologetically Moderate seldom find him especially fired up on any particular topic. He seems allergic to rhetoric in general, reserving most of his few flourishes for columns on government dysfunction. In “No Place to Call Home,” originally published in 2011, King wrote, “…the great middle of America has time and again served as ballast for our ship of state, keeping her from listing too far to port or starboard. The challenge this time around will be to see if it can keep the ship from splitting apart.”

Joe Lansdale There’s something off-kilter about East Texas. It hosts a culture in which the traditions of the rural South and the rural West mix in strange patterns, echoing the forested fade between the bayous of Louisiana and the hills and plains of Texas. The perfect landscape, in other words, to give rise to a writer as all over the map as Joe R. Lansdale.

Lansdale, who’s been known to write  for the Observer on occasion, is a fiercely prolific author with an unabashedly weird sensibility. Over the course of his career he’s picked up eight Bram Stoker Awards and produced a small library’s worth of short fiction, novels, comics and screenplays ranging from supernatural Westerns to pineywoods noir.

Lansdale tells all his tales with a straight face that plays up the sly, wicked humor bubbling underneath. All of his work, fiction and nonfiction alike, is filtered through an absurdist sensibility that Lansdale attributes to his home region. “There’s plenty of noir right here in East Texas,” Lansdale wrote in an Observer piece a few years ago. “Though it’s mixed with Southern Gothic and Western and all manner of stuff; it’s a gumbo boiled in hell … Weird as some of it is, fictionalized as the work is, it comes from a wellspring of true events you just can’t make up.”

Lansdale will be at the Wittliff Collections in San Marcos on Thursday, Oct. 9 to participate in “East Texas in Story and Song,” an event celebrating literature based in the region. He’ll be joined by his daughter Kasey Lansdale, a country singer-songwriter who’s scheduled to perform selections from her new album, Restless. Also appearing is Wes Ferguson, author of Running the River: Secrets of the Sabine, and an East Texas journalist whose work has also appeared in the Observer.

The event is free, though guests are asked to RSVP to [email protected]. There will be a signing after the program.

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S.C. Gwynne
Corey Arnold
S.C. Gwynne

It’s impossible to talk about the Civil War without considering the strange place it holds in American history as a founding myth. For the South in particular, the Civil War is still a defining cultural moment, in which a pantheon of men fought for a glorious lost cause.

That’s nonsense, of course. The cause was neither glorious nor, unfortunately, entirely lost. Remnants of the old Southern order cling to power even today, and the motives driving the conflict and its participants are well excavated. But the figures caught up in that struggle are still fascinating, and few of them more so than Stonewall Jackson.

The legendarily truculent general is the subject of Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson, a new book by Pulitzer Prize-nominated historian and journalist S.C. Gwynne. A longtime Texas resident, Gwynne spent 14 years writing for Texas Monthly and won widespread acclaim—as well  the Texas Book Award—for his 2010 book Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History. Gwynne lives in Austin.

Rebel+Yell+by+S.C.+GwynneRebel Yell explores the life and military career of a man contemporaries found both deeply odd and infuriatingly secretive. Jackson was famous for his quirks. “There never was a greater sleeper,” John Esten Cooke wrote in Stonewall Jackson: A Military History, noting that Jackson could pass out anywhere from the back of a horse to a military meal tent with food still in his mouth. Jackson believed that one arm was longer than the other and rode from place to place with the offending limb raised to improve its circulation. But he also made his reputation, Rebel Yell suggests, by being a forceful and dangerous commander, the kind of man Southern historians would hold up as a champion after his death. While Jackson’s end was inglorious—he was killed by friendly fire—the mythology surrounding him has grown steadily since his death, and his tactics and campaign strategies during the early part of the war are still studied as models of military acumen.

Gwynne will talk about Jackson’s legacy at BookPeople on Wednesday, Oct. 8, at 7 p.m. The event is free; tickets—which come free with pre-orders of the book—are necessary to join the signing line.

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getting-life-9781476756820_lgWhen Michael Morton walked out of prison in 2011, it was the close of a story that would put most legal thrillers to shame. Having spent 25 years in jail following a wrongful conviction for the murder of his wife, Morton was finally a free man, and he would eventually see the man who sent him away put—if only briefly—behind bars.

Morton tells that story in his new memoir, Getting Life: An Innocent Man’s 25-Year Journey from Prison to Peace. A review of the book will run in the new Books Issue of the Observer (check this space in early October), and Morton is slated for an appearance (details TBA) at the Texas Book Festival during the weekend of Oct. 25-26. If you’d like to hear what he has to say before that, though, Morton will present the book and speak at Austin’s LBJ Library on Tuesday, Sept. 30. He’ll be joined by Barry C. Scheck, co-founder and co-director of The Innocence Project, the nonprofit that utilizes DNA evidence to help overturn wrongful convictions.

Morton’s story is a remarkable one. He was arrested as the only suspect in the 1986 beating death of his wife in the couple’s home near Austin. Williamson County District Attorney Ken Anderson was later found to have withheld evidence that could have proved Morton’s innocence. Despite the testimony of his 3-year-old son, who witnessed the crime and claimed that his father wasn’t home at the time, Morton was convicted and given a life sentence. He spent almost a quarter-century behind bars, and was freed only after attorneys affiliated with The Innocence Project ran DNA tests on a bloody bandana found at the crime scene. Test results identified DNA from a known felon, Mark Norwood, who had killed another Texas woman in the time since Morton’s conviction. As a result of The Innocence Project’s work, Morton was exonerated. Anderson was later convicted for withholding evidence and spent five days in jail. .

Morton and Scheck will discuss the events behind Getting Life in a talk moderated by Mark Updegrove, director of the LBJ Library.

Attendance is exclusive to members of the LBJ Library, and costs $10 for their guests. The program includes a book signing prior to the talk and a reception following. Copies of Getting Life will be available for purchase.

When Charles Bowden, the prolific  investigative journalist and writer, died in his sleep on Saturday, Aug. 30, at the age of 69, it was an uncannily quiet end for a man who’d spent his life recording turmoil and violence along the Mexican-American border in prose that cut through the fog of political rhetoric to reach the harsh realities of the desert Southwest. Bowden forged his career primarily in Arizona. He died in Las Cruces, New Mexico, in recent years.

To mark Bowden’s passing, the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University has opened an archive of Bowden’s papers and published work for research. The collection stretches to 50 linear feet of boxes stuffed with correspondence, research materials, photographs and manuscripts that span Bowden’s career up to 2007.

Bowden’s life was dominated by the border. Over the course of more than 100 articles and 25 books, he dug deeply into topics as diverse as ecology, crime, drugs and social policy. His attention fell equally on people and the environment in which they live, and most of the books he published with University of Texas Press explored the interwoven fate of landscapes and their inhabitants. His first book with UT Press, Killing the Hidden Waters, focused on the dwindling water resources of the western states. Another, Inferno, explored the Sonoran Desert with photographs by Michael P. Berman. Exodus, a collaboration with photographer Julian Cardona, examined both migrants and the people who prey on them. In 2010 UT Press published The Charles Bowden Reader, a collection of essays and excerpts from his major books.

Bowden’s former editor at Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery, described him in a remembrance as a mix between Humphrey Bogart, Sam Elliott and True Detective’s Matthew McConaughey. Conversations with Bowden, she recalled, were like reading his writing: a steady stream of subjects, references and ideas. “That he died in his sleep,” she wrote in an obituary, “and not at the hands of the cartels, or the coyotes, or dirty cops on either side of the border, is something.”

The violence that Bowden witnessed as a reporter infected his work, and he spent a lot of time dissecting his own reactions to violence. In “The War Next Door” he described receiving a call from a friend in Juarez. “He says a man just put a gun to his head and threatened to kill him,” Bowden wrote. “He wants me to call his wife if he turns up dead and explain what happened. I hang up and go back to reading a book. That is what the numbness feels like.”

The situations Bowden documented were stark and often murderous, and he had no patience for people who proposed easy solutions to complex problems. He wrote to expose the truth as he saw it, however cruel or uncomfortable. “The world is rushing in,” he wrote in the same article, in reference to  climate change. “We can hardly alter that fact if we continue to believe in fantasies.”

Archival research at the Wittliff Collections is by appointment only,

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southamerica horizontal
New South Books

 

Lawd aw’mighty, it’s a relief to read a recently written novel set in New Orleans before Katrina. Not that there was ever anything innocent about the Big Easy, but something irreplaceable was lost when people died on the runway because the Secret Service grounded medevac flights for hours on end so President Bush could have the skies over the Crescent City to himself for a long-overdue P.R. flyover. So it is with fond nostalgia that we set the Wayback Machine to the year 2000 and visit the Faubourg Marigny with author Rod Davis’ protagonist Jack Prine, who makes his debut here in what appears to be the first book of a new and welcome detective series.

Prine is an interesting piece of work, even in the context of New Orleans, “where the nation’s leftovers tend to form up like lines of seaweed on the sand.” A veteran of the secret and often violent world of Army Intelligence in Cold War-era Korea, Prine finds himself making ends meet as an unofficial private investigator and freelance writer after a career in mainstream broadcast journalism ended with an episode of Felony Assault on an Editor—which, of course, is every reporter’s fantasy. Prine is not quite as hard-boiled as, say, Mike Hammer, but he’s definitely been on the griddle a few minutes past over-medium.

South, America
By Rod Davis
NewSouth Books
260 pages; $24.95

During an early morning stroll through the streets downriver of the French Quarter, Prine realizes that what at first appears to be a sleeping drunk on the sidewalk is, instead, the corpse of a young African-American homosexual whose skull has been caved in by blunt trauma. It’s the sort of thing that can complicate a morning walk, and to complicate things further, the corpse—one Young Henry, known more formally as Terrell Henry Meridian—has a sister named Elle, who herself adds a new definition to the word “complicated.” Also smart, lovely and troubled—but definitely more complicated than your average distressed damsel with unfinished business in the Delta. This is obviously an occasion requiring a knight in tarnished armor. Enter former Lieutenant Prine.

Thus begins a picaresque romp from New Orleans across the Delta and back again, through poverty and wealth and race and greed and betrayal and loyalty, echoing with Southern heritage and literature. Elle’s description of the Natchez Trace’s Witch Dance campground (“It isn’t even history. It’s barely even hearsay.”) is a far better Faulkner joke than I could come up with. But then I would rather read Joyce than Faulkner, and I’d prefer a recreational organ transplant to either. Still, the nod is one of the novel’s frequent subtle reminders that South, America is a bit more ambitious than your average detective thriller. I’m fairly sure there’s a reference to Langston Hughes’ “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” on page 85.

To fulfill the genre requirements, there is also a valuable stolen painting, a secret 8-figure inheritance from the white side of Elle and Young Henry’s family, an assortment of villians comprising blood relatives and mafiosos representing both Dixie and Jersey varieties, and a respectable level of violence and mayhem. No detective thriller is complete without the hero taking an ass-whuppin’ that leaves him pissing blood and vowing bloody retribution to follow. South, America is complete.

There is much here that brings to mind the Dave Robicheaux novels of James Lee Burke, and Burke’s norteamericano version of magical realism. South, America‘s version involves Elle’s aunt in the Delta, who is schooled in the vodou tradition. Davis handles this sensitive (especially in the hands of a Caucasian scribe) subject respectfully and well, without attempting to plumb the topic’s depths as found in J.J. Phillips’ Mojo Hand and A.R. Flowers’ De Mojo Blues. This isn’t anthropology, after all, and when the forces of evil are arrayed against you, a little bit of chanting and the blood of a freshly killed pigeon is like chicken soup for a cold—it cain’t hoit.

Rod Davis

If there’s a gripe, it regards a trend in thriller writing that amplifies locale verisimilitude with regional food writing. Houston native John Lescroart excels at this, and no Burke book set in Louisiana is complete without a mouthwatering descriptions of etouffee and dirty rice. Davis, during long career in magazine journalism (including a spell as editor of The Texas Observer) once edited something called Cooking Light Magazine, and that experience seems to have seeped into his descriptions of cuisine in the land of the deliciously greasy spoon. One roadside stop includes a repast of Delta tamales, whose mysterious origins are a source of debate, but for the most part Prine and Elle pursue their mission with arterial plaque as a hazard avoided. I, personally, would rip my tongue out with rusty serving tongs before I ordered a grilled chicken sandwich at a ramshackle burger-and-blues joint in the Delta, but then this is only the start of what promises to be a fresh new series of thrillers. Perhaps a sequel will find Prine, .45 tucked beneath his shirt, at a café somewhere near Itta Bena savoring the legendary Floating Cheeseburger.

For readers’ sakes, if not for Prine’s, I sincerely hope those sequels are on the way.

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