Saturday, January 21, 2017

Book Reviews: Juice

by Ishmael Reed
I usually like reading Reed's works. He calls it like he sees it. I don't always agree but he does make me think. One of the key themes in Reed's work (both fictional and non-fiction) is that American racism is particularly virulent and acts as a unifying force for people who are "white" or who can theoretically become white. A sub theme is that this racism is not something restricted to the right wing or politically conservative among us. Liberals can be just as racist; Reed famously (and correctly) referred to NPR " as about as integrated as a Georgia country club". Lastly Reed is particularly interested in how this racism impacts black men-especially the stereotype of the brute. In Reed's view many people make money off of this belief-even black people who ought to know better. In Reed's view feminists of all stripes often rush to criticize bad behavior among black men while studiously ignoring such behavior among their own ethnic groups. Because there are very few or no media outlets which are controlled by black men, the result has been a vicious scapegoating of black men for various sins, especially sexual ones. This obviously has parallels to the supposedly bygone days of lynching in which a black man could be murdered because of an actual rape, a fictitious rape, looking a white person in the eye, having consensual sex with a white woman, just for being "uppity", for getting on a white person's nerves or for no reason at all. As Reed points out in this book and sociologists have discussed, up until the mid forties/fifties lynching of blacks was considered normal enough such that whites sent postcards bearing lynching photos or took out ads in newspapers threatening or advertising upcoming lynchings. So if people were comfortable enough to bring their children to witness lynchings then how long will it really be before beliefs about essential black inferiority no longer hold true among many in the majority population? It might be a while, as comedian Michael Richards demonstrated. Although thankfully those things don't happen (as often?) any longer a cynic could make a good argument that the key function of lynching -unpunished public violence designed to keep blacks in their place- has been outsourced to the police. No amateurs (George Zimmerman) need to get their hands dirty doing that sort of thing any longer.

Juice is a fictional examination/screed/satire about how the OJ trials impacted race relations, the media and one Black cartoonist, Paul Blessings aka Bear. Like Kurt Vonnegut, who IIRC is name checked, Reed has put a lot of himself into the primary character. Like Reed, Bear is getting up there in age. He has a white wife and biracial daughter. Bear suffers from diabetes. Bear is struggling to keep his job at a left-wing TV station that has has been privatized. His bosses, both black and white, are quickly purging the ranks of anyone considered too ethnic or militant. Emphasis on racial disparities are considered to be in bad taste or even downright racist, unless you're offering some "tough love" criticism to black people-especially black men. Emphasis on sexual or gender issues is where the focus needs to be. Blacks are like so yesterday. Bear's hard hitting cartoons and commentary are falling more and more out of favor, as is his obsession with the OJ case-or more accurately his obsession with what the media's reaction to the OJ case says about American society. When one of his cartoons is, according to Bear, deliberately and maliciously misinterpreted by racist co-workers and bosses Bear finds that his job, career, marriage and relationship with his daughter all hang by the thinnest of threads. This kicks off a long examination of the OJ case, what it says about blacks and whites, and how we perceive things differently. This book can shift abruptly from absurd comedy to serious political rant to domestic commentary to magic realism (Bear gets advice from the cartoon character he created). Bear's friends initially offer support but over time find that they need to make their own peace with the powers that be. People have to eat after all. Reed takes a few shots at rappers and reality TV stars who play down to stereotypes for money. His primary vitriol is reserved for a CNN style producer and a dead ringer for Fox boss Rupert Murdoch. The story is told in a non-linear fashion. The narrative is all over the place in time. You find out what happens to some characters upfront. Other characters slip in and out of the story. Through the character Bear, Reed revisits a lot of unanswered questions or nagging inconsistencies about the criminal and civil trials of OJ.

This will stretch your patience a bit. I think I would have enjoyed this more as a series of essays, which is what large parts of it read like. Still it has more than a fair amount of humor included. Reed accurately captures and satirizes what have come to be known as microaggressions. Bear is a paranoid grumpy man but he's not wrong about everything. If you're already a Reed fan this is a decent book. Otherwise I'd advise you to check out some of his essays to see if you like his writing style.
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