"I cannot live without books." -- Thomas Jefferson

Friday, September 2, 2016

Our September Pick for (Book) Soup of the Month is Delicious Foods by James Hannaham!

There are many ways in which one could categorize James Hannaham’s Delicious Foods. It’s a modern slave narrative, and a frightening one to be sure. It’s a comment on the present state of race relations and economic disenfranchisement in America. It’s a hero’s origin story, one in which the hero spends most of his time in the underworld and comes away from it more than a little scarred. Its title is even suggestive of the heroic mythology: if you eat the fruit of the underworld, you won't leave it unscathed. While Delicious Foods is all of these familiar things, it harnesses these attributes and emerges as a strikingly original, emotionally jolting and exquisitely written novel.

Our heroes, impoverished African American mother and son Darlene and Eddie Hardison, each are grappling with their respective handicaps right from the start. Eddie's physical handicap, introduced in the novel's introduction, remains a mystery until much later; we're confronted by Darlene's right away. A college-educated woman still devastated by survivor's guilt over her husband's lynching and trapped in dead-end work, Darlene has started to walk the street, hustling for johns to support both her young son and a just-barely-functional dependence on crack cocaine.

Right from the get-go, we meet “Scotty,” the literal personification of crack. Every other chapter is presented with Scotty’s sassy, serpentine narration as he (or she, or it) relates the story, interjecting "Bye, Felicia"-style sparklers that up the humor of many seedier passages, but also hammer home the grit:

 “Get out there! I said. Ain’t nothing shameful ’bout trying to survive, bitch. Don’t you know the street always got a answer?”

Very soon, the street does seem to present an answer: One night, Darlene is approached about a job that will pay well and house and feed her. Before she can fully comprehend what’s happening, Darlene signs her rights away and is transported to her place of employment. Far from being a heaven-sent opportunity, the employer, Delicious Foods, operates nefariously, to say the least, fostering its employees' existing drug habit to keep them docile, all the while subjecting them to sub-standard working and living conditions and garnished wages. Constant threats of swift and arbitrary punishment for any infraction hang in the air like a flock of grackles. Darlene plans to call her son as soon as possible to let him know her whereabouts, but she’s denied access to a phone on the first night. Then the hours turn into days, then into weeks. 

When Eddie finally tracks his mother down and joins the Delicious workforce himself, the company's management takes note of his natural tendencies towards leadership and his ability to seemingly mend anything broken. Soon, even Eddie finds himself stuck in the vortex of a cruel system balances occasional rewards and constant depravation. It’s equally unclear if Darlene will ever quite be ready to break up with Scotty and, by extension, the new normal she has made for herself at Delicious Foods.

From its kinetic opening chapter to its gruesome denouement and cathartic finale, Hannaham never fails to surprise the reader with intriguing, but believable, twists and turns, narrative curveballs that ratchet up the tension but never seem implausible. However grim or hopeless the situations in Delicious Foods seem to get, Hannaham's elegantly composed chapters and painterly prose never leave the reader wanting for moments of beauty or the promise of salvation. 

For such a brutal and sweeping work, the word "sensitive" also comes to mind when discussing Delicious Foods. Hannaham's depiction of addiction, both shocking and relatable, makes Darlene's descent into Scotty's clutches, and the clutches of Delicious, all the more understandable. Add to this a lineup of characters that, in less capable hands, would come off as cartoonish: the small town curmudgeon named Sparkplug, the alcoholic bum named Tuckahoe Joe, local hookers named Giggles, Fatback and Kim Ono. Here, all are rendered with a vivid immediacy that makes them authentic, knowable, existing in a place beyond the traditional stock character. I was on the alert for ham-fisted passages, for contrived secondary characters with goofy names, and for preachy or didactic asides about addiction or poverty. By the final pages, my fears were still unmerited.

No single encapsulation really does justice to Delicious Foods. When I describe it to friends and customers, I usually say that it's a bit like The Wire, only it’s more Southern, more rural, more surreal. It feels at once rooted in the present conversation about racial and economic inequality, and, at the same time, effortlessly timeless. It’s reminiscent of, and compares favorably, to great works like Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath or Viramontes’ Under the Feet of Jesus. Yet, for all its familiar aspects, Delicious Foods remains truly unlike anything I’ve ever read.
- Kieran, Book Soup Bookseller

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