My husband and I have just finished watching the old “Twin Peaks” (from the 90s). I’m still trying to figure it out. There’s murder, a dwarf, a giant, a woman with superhuman strength (Nadine) – not to mention the woods, the owl, and the supernatural. Good versus evil. What does this sound like? SOUTHERN GOTHIC of course. Flannery O’Connor territory, upper Northwest style.
Today, Lawrence Blank-Cook stops in at Bacon to talk about another flavor of Southern gothic, James Hannaham’s Delicious Foods.
From Lawrence: I have always secretly loved Southern Gothic literature. I use the word “secretly” because to admit that you love the darker works of William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy says something about yourself. The term “Southern Gothic” is used to describe works that explore the tension between the vision of the old South and what made that way of life possible – slavery, racism and patriarchy. Anyone who knows me knows that these words are antithetical to my belief system. The tensions that existed within our social and economic structure have left the South still dealing with with some of these issues today. Literature holds a mirror up to life, and James Hannaham’s Delicious Foods is a mirror for the 21st century South. Hannaham reminds us that it’s time to listen up and move on.
Stephen King’s terrifying thrillers have one element of fright to them, but Southern gothic literature is more subtle and explores, like Edgar Allen Poe’s work, the darker side of our inhumanity to each other. If you have never read O’Connor’s Wise Blood or “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” I recommend both as a sampling. McCarthy’s early work such as Outer Dark or Suttree will also leave you slightly uncomfortable and horrified. And Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” or Absalom, Absalom also give you a sense of what lies beneath the surface in some families. In each of these works traditional characters encounter or are themselves twisted individuals who have rationalized their behavior based on the life they experience within their communities.
This Christmas, my brother-in-law Steve gave me two books. He always makes thoughtful selections of latest best sellers or feminist theory that he knows I will love. For this, I am eternally grateful. I add his books to my stack and eventually get to them. It took me a little longer than usual this year, but Delicious Foods by James Hannaham was gripping from the minute I picked it up. It is a meal that I devoured over the course of roughly 48 hours. I would have done so faster if I lived alone and didn’t have to interact with my family.
Hannaham won the 2016 Pen/Faulkner Award for this coming of age tale of filial devotion and pathetic addiction. The judges knew what they were doing when they made their selection. Delicious Foods is a not just a must-read for foodies or Southerners. It is a compelling piece of art for any citizen of the 21st century and should be paired with Hillbilly Elegy, an episode of “Chopped” – and a glass of wine (to ease the pain of some of the more difficult parts).
One of Hannaham’s brilliant and harrowing devices is the narration. The protagonist is Eddie, and as you learn in the prologue, he has recently lost both hands, is driving a car, and is escaping from a Louisiana farm where he has been for the last six years. The third-person narrator calmly relates Eddie’s journey north with no sense of desperation or urgency. Yes, Eddie fears the law. Yes, Eddie has a hard time identifying a plan, and unfortunately, yes, Eddie has a hard time locating the only person who might help him, Aunt Bethella.
When Eddie finally tracks her down in St. Cloud, Minnesota, we learn that she wears “the same light gardenia perfume.” The juxtaposition of her perfume and the bloodied stumps he presents when he greets her is straight up Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy Southern gothic. She smells good, and he has no hands. Our narrator is relating the events and, like Eddie, not presenting any judgement. This is just in the first 10 pages.
When we meet Eddie’s mother, Darlene, in the first chapter (and I promise no spoilers), Hannaham – like William Faulkner in The Sound and the Fury – turns the narration on its head. The voice we hear is Scotty, not a third-person omniscient narrator. Scotty is the crack addict portion of Darlene’s brain. Scotty tells us,
“But I feel a obligation to Darlene. Out of all my friends – and, baby, I got millions – she make me wonder the most if I done right by her. Sometimes I think to myself that maybe she shouldna met me. But then again, can’t nobody else tell her side of things but Yours Truly, Scotty. I’m the only one who stuck by her the whole time.”
Scotty hangs on to Darlene throughout the novel and becomes a character to reckon with until the very end. We do hear Darlene’s voice at points, and that is one of the saving graces. Is Scotty the new Benji from The Sound and the Fury? That would be an interesting discussion.
There are other characters along the way who interact with Eddie, Darlene and Scotty. I don’t want to give them all away here, but look out for Sextus, Sirius, Nat, Bethella, Michelle, TT, Tuck, Jackie, and Hammer. They all make up the compelling narrative that is loosely based on a true story. Frightening and yet so believable.
Delicious Foods is chock full of commentary on race, drug abuse, economic and social inequalities, and the ending gives the reader some resolution, though not entirely. We have to be comfortable with that discomfort and tension, just as with other Southern Gothic works and the world in which we live. Eddie responds to all of the things that life throws him and is still a protagonist worth cheering for. Delicious Foods is about our (in)humanity to each other, a son’s devotion to his mother, and the devastating effects of her addiction. If you are looking for a page turner, Hannaham will not let you down. I’m hoping our book club will read it so that we can discuss it. Thanks, Steve, for a wonderful gift.