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An Outrageous Narrator Takes on History in Yazoo Blues, John Pritchard's Wickedly Brilliant Second Novel



The Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin wrote that the novel, like the medieval carnival, allowed a "special type of communication impossible in ordinary life," because it was "frank and free, permitting no distance between those who came in contact with each other and liberating them from norms of etiquette and decency imposed at other times." By this measure, John Pritchard's The Yazoo Blues (NewSouth Books, 200 pp., $24.95) is a great novel: It's hard to imagine a narrator more free from the norms of "etiquette and decency" than Junior Ray Loveblood, the Mississippi Delta deputy sheriff Pritchard first introduced in his 2005 debut, Junior Ray.

Junior Ray's language provides the first hint of the flagrant rejection of Southern social norms that lies at the heart of Yazoo Blues, but it's a pretty good hint. His profanity flows like a warm breeze over a fragrant slough. Here's Junior Ray addressing the reader in the first chapter: "Sumbich, you won't believe this, but somebody'll walk clear across the street just to come up to me and say, 'Junior Ray, you ass'ole, why do you have to use so gotdam much profanity in that book you wrote about us?'

"I look at that coksukka hard with my right eye, and I tell 'im: Listen, goat-dik, I didn't write the sumbich, I talked it, but the fukkin fact is God invented cusswords." Junior then explains the theological reasoning behind his argument, including a side observation that hell is probably "somewhere over across the river in Arkansas."

What Junior Ray means by "talked" is that this novel, like the first, is a purported oral record, dutifully transcribed by a learned "facilitator" named McKinney Lake. The prim and scholarly Miss Lake does her best to render her subject's vernacular accurately—hence the "fuks" and "gotdams" populating virtually every paragraph—in the process showcasing the carnivalesque wildness of Junior Ray himself. The novel's structure is highly reminiscent of Thomas Berger's Little Big Man, with a presumably reliable transcriber who nonetheless can't resist occasionally injecting herself into Junior Ray's narrative, through historical footnotes and corrective asides.

The twin plots of the book, such as they are, concern a lovesick poet who goes briefly insane over a Memphis stripper named Money Scatters, and a fairly true-to-life rendering of the ill-fated Yazoo Pass expedition of 1863, when an armada of Union steamboats tried to invade Vicksburg by traveling northward through flooded creeks and swamps parallel to the Mississippi. Pritchard cites historical authorities on Yazoo Pass and then proves them inept, provides delicious-sounding recipes for such specialties as "Okra Winfrey" (with cautions from Miss Lake that Junior Ray never actually cooked anything), includes fine original poems by the stripper-chasing professor, and then brings them all down to earth with Junior Ray's critical explications.

In other words, Yazoo Blues is one wild-ass sumbichin' ride, so profane as to be fukkin' profound.

John Pritchard appears at Davis-Kidd Booksellers 7 p.m. Dec. 10.

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