Making it New (Again)by Justin Mitchell
Juice!: A Novel
(Dalkey Archive Press, 2011)
In the beginning of Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, Ishmael Reed’s hilarious parody of the dime store Western, Loop Garoo Kid offers his view of the novel as an art form: “No one says a novel has to be one thing. It can be anything it wants to be, a vaudeville show, the six o’clock news, the mumblings of wild old men saddled by demons.” Reed’s novels, of course, have been all of these things and more. His first book, The Freelance Pallbearers, a futuristic dystopian farce, introduced many of his central preoccupations: government conspiracies, secret societies, mysticism, ethnocentrism, and propaganda. Reed’s 1970s novels—Mumbo Jumbo, The Last Days of Louisiana Red, and Flight to Canada—demonstrated his ability to create equally absurd portraits of both America’s past and present. Not only do they represent his deepest explorations of African-American folklore and humor, but they also showcase his uncommon gift for creating elaborately structured narratives.
Reed’s last few novels have been a lot heavier on the “six o’clock news” side of things. Whereas his earlier fiction—with its deliberate anachronisms, gallows humor, grotesque characters, misappropriations of historical figures and documents, and dei ex machina—created a powerful sense of dislocation, his recent fiction has been surprisingly linear and topical. With his latest novel, however, Reed seems to have struck a winning balance between the old and the new. Juice! successfully combines the sharp thematic focus of later works like Japanese by Spring with the technical daring of Mumbo Jumbo.
The novel tells the story of Paul “Bear” Blessings, an aging African-American cartoonist at KCAK, a television station that once espoused an edgy, leftist agenda but now, after falling under new corporate ownership, seeks to entertain the more socially conservative suburban set. At the behest of his new bosses, Blessings transforms his subversive cartoon character Attitude the Badger into the “less threatening” Koots Badger, “a harmless old curmudgeon who was always threatening individuals and institutions with his cane.” The execs reward him with a raise, a spacious new condo, and a cozy downtown studio.
But Blessings’s private obsession with documenting the mainstream media’s racist depictions of black males, particularly O.J. Simpson, eventually gets the best of him. Bewitched by the never-ending media circus surrounding Simpson’s legal troubles, Blessings gradually returns to drawing militant cartoons. Of course, this leads to a series of heated confrontations with the higher-ups, but, thanks to some bizarre behind-the-scenes machinations, he is kept on the company payroll.
Juice! raises serious questions about the bowdlerization of art and the unique forces that conspire to corrupt African-American artists searching for legitimacy and acceptance. But more importantly, Juice! interrogates readers’ expectations of the well-made literary novel. The chapters, for instance, seem to have been thrown together almost willy-nilly. They jump around wildly in time and subject matter, alternating between acerbic, often cogent disquisitions on the Simpson murder trial and comic descriptions of the narrator’s deteriorating personal and professional life. Out of nowhere, Blessings will sound off on anything from the consumer habits of so-called progressives to the history of graphic art in America.
The book is also padded with drawings, courtroom documents, television transcripts, and quotations from news articles and scholarly journals. With this deluge of information and narratives, this constant shifting from social commentary to outlandish personal drama, Reed somehow manages to construct a wonderfully textured and absorbing work of art. Indeed, it is the sheer range of references and techniques that he marshals to indict the American media and illustrate his characters’ complicity with its racist agenda that make Juice! a strangely fulfilling book. In other words, this novel deserves our attention because it shows one of our nation’s top writers, in prose that is both graceful and witty, expanding the possibilities and pleasures of novelistic form.
Justin Mitchell writes for Ply magazine and the Black Ballot Weekly Report.