Delicious Foods, by James Hannaham

Delicious FoodsI didn’t know much about this book going in, but as soon as I got through the first few pages, in which a seventeen-year-old kid called Eddie uses the bloody stumps where his hands used to be to drive a stolen car from BFE Louisiana to Houston and eventually to Minnesota, well, I was hooked. Why did this kid have no hands? What was he escaping from? Why did he leave his mother behind and why wasn’t he in any hurry to go back and get her?

Luckily this is the kind of book that answers all of the questions it asks, even if it takes its sweet time doing so. After the tense and urgent opening we travel back in time to nicer days, when Eddie’s mother, Darlene, was a young college student sweet on her sorority sister’s boyfriend. As all sorority girls know, this never ends well, but Darlene takes things in stride, doing the best she can until the absolute worst happens and she finds herself broke, crack-addicted, selling herself, and being a terrible mother to her son. When the Delicious Foods minibus rolls up with the offer of a great job with housing, it doesn’t take much for Darlene to say yes, leaving Eddie to fend for himself. But as you can probably guess, the job is not great, and in fact the workers are basically slaves to the family that runs the company.

As the story goes on, the narrative jumps between Eddie and Darlene, or, well, Eddie and “Scotty”, which turns out to be a street name for crack cocaine. Yes indeed, half this book is narrated by a controlled substance. But that’s actually pretty cool — you can see how Darlene’s thoughts are affected and pushed around by Scotty to become the thoughts that eventually win out or turn into speech. Scotty is almost a completely reliable narrator, in that regard, and it is going on my list of favorite book characters for its honesty and sass.

Also pretty cool is the way that Hannaham portrays the farm and the mentality that keeps all the workers working there even when it is obvious even to them that they have the strength of numbers to get out. Why would they leave a place that offers a poorly maintained roof and questionably nutritious food and 98 percent impure crack cocaine? Where would they go? What would they do? At least they know what they have if they stay.

Less cool is the ending, which wraps things up in a saccharine blanket. I would have preferred the book end a bit more ambiguously, but I know a lot of people like that whole closure thing and will appreciate the sappiness as well. I’ll just be over here ignoring the quasi-epilogue, as usual, and appreciating Hannaham’s fascinating story and lovely sentences.

Recommendation: For those who don’t need a strong plot, those intrigued by people who take scam jobs, and anyone who can survive chapters narrated by narcotics.

Rating: 8/10

Black Water Rising, by Attica Locke (18 July — 20 July)

I think I liked this book. I’m not sure, though. Has this ever happened to you? At first I wasn’t sure I’d keep reading it, then it got interesting and I devoured it, and then the ending was sort of okay. Hmm.

Well, let’s stick to the facts. The novel opens with our protagonist, Jay Porter, taking his pregnant wife out for a birthday “cruise” on Buffalo Bayou in Houston. That gets quotation marks because the boat is kinda crappy and so is the captain. But Jay makes the most of it, at least until the shooting starts. When it’s done, Jay fishes a woman out of the bayou and takes her to the police station, figuring to have done a good turn. But when he later finds out that there was a dead man left behind, he gets a little nervous. And when he starts getting followed? More nervous. And when he starts getting threatened? Well, you know. Meanwhile there’s a dockworkers strike that Jay’s father-in-law wants Jay, as a lawyer, to get involved with, which means he will have to go talk to the his ex-girlfriend from back in his civil rights heyday (this takes place in 1981). Also there is Jay’s current case involving a prostitute and also some sneaky oil tycoons (shocker?). All in all, it’s an adventure of a novel.

I just felt like the ending was a real cop-out [spoiler alert?]. Locke spends several hundred pages getting me interested in this whole conspiracy thing, and then the conspirators get away with it but then Jay is like, “I’ma take them down!” and then the book ends. And I would certainly have rather seen them either taken down in the novel or just left to get away with it, or even to have ended the novel before they got away with it if ambiguity was the word here. Meh.

Rating: 6/10
(Countdown Challenge: 2009)