What begins as an interesting mindless read (I found I could read this when I didn’t have the strength to tackle Nietzsche) unravels over a few hundred pages into the unmasking of a sexist, misguided white British man attempting to shed his genius light on the problem of racism in Mississippi. A “journalist” I guess? He keeps bragging about having to go on assignments around the world to keep their meager finances from shattering, since his GIRLFRIEND only works for minimal wages at a bookstore 90 miles away. So this Brit journalist who apparently moved to Arizona 20 years ago but is so sought-after to have traveled the world catching a tiger by its toe, most recently has lived in NYC with his GIRLFRIEND (I’m already starting to get nauseous and suspicious of this writer by overuse of the term) for four years, when suddenly he experiences the magic of the Mississippi Delta. Naturally, his interest originated in blues music, and as a culture vulture, he swooned over several near-poverty musicians who’d been “discovered.” On his first trip to Pluto, MS, he falls in love with a house and decides to buy it. You can only imagine the delight of publishers smacking their lips over a book about a British New Yorker turned Southern.
Shockingly (for anyone who’s never been to the South), people are decent! And yet, sadface, they like guns a lot, but Richard (can I go ahead and call him Dick?) tremblingly overcomes his aversion to hurting animals and becomes a hunter. Guns are a topic of conversation, “people here talk about firearms and hunting in the same way that urban liberals go on about nutrition and exercise.” So he miraculously buys a house from a friend’s dad, secured through the local bank because all the major mortgage lenders shun his writerly salary, and it ends up being a money pit. And once his GIRLFRIEND (are we tired of that yet?) moves in, we find she’s allergic to mosquitoes.
The first winter sets in and Mr. Genius finds out that yes, the South has cold weather. It’s too expensive for them to run the central heating in their house, so they wrap up in layers. He writes his GIRLFRIEND’s perspective as hating him for having to wear lots of clothes in the house. Herein starts the terrible misogyny that makes me want to never read a male writer again, “I certainly felt responsible for her discomfort, and somewhat ashamed. A man who couldn’t keep his woman warm in winter wasn’t much of a man at all.” Finally, he figures out how to work the wood-burning stoves and glory be, “for the first time in many weeks I saw my girlfriend naked.”
At this point, I start to rage-read the rest of the book, the remaining 100 pages. It doesn’t get better. “Mariah doesn’t do Valentine’s Day. She doesn’t believe in it, or care about it…” Really? Please tell me one intelligent being that DOES care about V-day? Idiot. When quizzed about why he’s not married to her, “I don’t like the law being involved in my love life.” Audience response: “I bet she doesn’t look at it that way.” Dick, “You’re probably right.” Eye roll and I have a premonition about how this terrible book is going to end.
Some of the more subtle misogyny is in his treatment of the women that pop up. He has no problem describing the men with first & last name, but his women are ephemeral, elusive creatures, unnamed or just first named. Compare and contrast in the following 2 sentences that nestle back-to-back in the book: “Morgan’s girlfriend was a professor of sociology at the University of Mississippi, an attractive blonde woman in sporty golf clothes. Bill Luckett, Morgan’s best friend and business partner in Mississippi, was a big, tall man with swept-back white hair and a take-charge personality.” Morgan’s girlfriend unnamed, but Luckett written up with powerful persona. Oh, and ladies LOVE watching men do stuff, which is why it’s ok that “sometimes I played golf with Bill Luckett’s clubs, and Mariah rode around in a golf cart watching us all play.” I’m seriously slitting my wrists here. Rescue me from this idiot, please!
Later we’re on the campaign trail with Bill Luckett & Dick, Bill “talked fast, ate fast, moved fast, made decisions quickly.” Bill’s white, and he heads to a black church. Here they greet “Francine, a smallish blond in a white suit who loved going to black church…” Then they meet “Amos Harper, who had worked for Bill for more than forty years…” Guess which is the woman (single name, focus on appearance) and the man (both names, focus on experience). Oh, and bonus is that Francine is actually Bill’s wife/partner!
Unexpected learning along the way, I had never heard of the 1940s Wage Hand Program in Mississippi– where, due to the labor shortage caused by the Great Migration, landowners would go to the prisons and pick out someone to work for you, you just had to feed ’em and clothe ’em and give ’em a place to live. Hello, slavery. One of the wage hands becomes a beloved “family” friend of one of these white families, living with their aunt for 40 years. The white family is shocked, just shocked, to find photos of a black woman in his photo album, taken over a long time span. “None of us knew a thing about her. He had never mentioned her. We didn’t know her name.” Meanwhile, they thought this “hand” (who was never paid in all those years) was a faithful family friend.
Despite all the nitty gritty tales from inside the black bars, Dick is never able to get a black friend to attend his parties, except as hired help. What surprises me is that he’s surprised by it.
And then, the last ten pages are the ultimate climax, the WEDDING. He decides on a car ride home that “nothing would make Mariah happier.” Gag. “It would be a grand excuse for another big party, and it might even improve our life together.” Such optimism! Then like a dipshit, he proceeds to fight with her about the wedding:
While scaling back Cathy’s hopes for a big Delta wedding on Pluto, Mariah was also battling me to get what she wanted in terms of invitations, flowers, food, tablecloths, napkins, stemware. It didn’t make any sense to me to spend three hundred dollars on pretty little [Ed: “pretty little!” I hate this guy] paper invitations with stamped RSVP envelopes when you could do it for free by email. So we had a fight about that, and just about everything else. When she started buying bridal magazines, I wanted to call the whole thing off, and we nearly did.
I couldn’t believe she wanted to squander so much of our meager financial resources on such silly shit… [blah blah blah, he wins some concessions and loses some] Then, like so many bridegrooms before me, I spent weeks yearning for the day when it would all be over and we could talk about something else.
While reading, I exclaimed vocally my disgust and questioned my dignity in reading on. But I did, and I finished it, and it ends in a ridiculously trite wedding. Confetti for all! Racism solved by misogynist marrying long-time girlfriend in Mississippi! Please literary-gods, never give another book contract to this man again.