Delicious Foods, by James Hannaham

Reviewed by Jennifer Spiegel

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Back Bay Books, 2016

I waited till the very end of 2016 to read it, though I picked up the paperback in January (it came out in hardback in 2015). I don’t know why. Nestled on my shelf between must-reads and supposed-to-reads, Delicious Foods remained unread throughout the year: missing the havoc of the election, skipping the annual list-making season in which readers formulate their Top Ten Books of 2016. My own book-reviewing gig, Snotty Literati, made its list. And, well, Delicious Foods is not on it.

It should’ve been. While not necessarily as large in its philosophy or cultural commentary as my 2016 pick for Best Book (which remains my first pick)—Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad—this one was among my favorite novels of the year. Delicious Foods is a great book. It’s an original story with a—dare I say?—suspenseful plot, soulful characters, and amazing language.

Start with the cover. Such a lovely cover. I love that cover.

But don’t stop there. Hannaham is a great writer! It’s easy to classify this as literary fiction, with its character-centric prose. And it is literary fiction. But we’re almost in the terrain of the literary thriller. Almost. Not quite. The prose is too rich, the plot too secondary. But I have to admit: it’s a page-turner! Despite my non-stop reading habits, it’s still fairly rare for me to be unable to put a book down. As I read this one, I desperately wanted to know what would happen to the two main characters—Darlene and her son, Eddie.

There is a mystery at the heart of this story. Crackheads get their habit fed in exchange for slave labor on a farm (Delicious Foods) in a strange, middle-of-nowhere setting that might be Texas and it might be Florida and it might be Louisiana. They work all day, smoke their pipes when they can, and wonder if they’re surrounded by crocodiles. Darlene, widow-turned-prostitute, has dragged her child into this mess. And we’re scared for them, we’re hurt for them, and Eddie’s fate is an ache.

This is how the novel begins: “After escaping from the farm, Eddie drove through the night. Sometimes he thought he could feel his phantom fingers brushing against his thighs, but above the wrists he now had nothing. Dark stains covered the terry cloth wrapped around the ends of his wrists; his mother had stanched the bleeding with rubber cables.” And we’re off. The prose is smooth, easy-to-read, vivid.

The subject matter is not easy. There are drugs. There is violence.

Apparently, there’s a real tale upon which Hannaham based his novel. Check this crazy story out.  

Hannaham does some extraordinary things. He gives Darlene a heartbreaking past. Her activist husband, a black man, has been burned alive. Besides this subtle introduction of racism in the thematic layout here, the standout feature is the narration. There are times when we’re with Eddie, the drug-free child. There are times when we’re with Darlene, the strung-out mom. And, most notably, most originally, most skillfully, there are times when we’re with Scotty—the drug. Scotty speaks. He speaks of his love for Darlene, of how he doesn’t want to let her go, how enslavement isn’t such a bad thing if Darlene and Scotty get to be together.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t note the brilliant way that Hannaham moves between the voices of Scotty and multiple limited omniscient, articulate, elegiac voices. Note this passage in which Darlene, a virtual slave, is looking up at the stars—which is risky, lest her slavemasters catch her star-gazing: “It made her think of everything in her own past that had brought her to Delicious and that she wanted to reverse, and how the light from the stars had come from long before the time she had been with her son, even before the time when Nat had been alive. Only then could she faintly accept the romance of it; of human beings, all by themselves on a wet rock in an outpost of a universe whose size they couldn’t comprehend, staring into the heavens to make primitive pictures in the air based on lights that might not even exist anymore.”

Contrast that with this limited omniscient narrator who sticks close to Darlene. This passage discusses the family in charge of Delicious Foods: “On top of that shit, the Fusiliers still had a damn good name in Appalousa Parish and far too many sonofabitches up in that area owed em too much shit, based on like Great-Great-Grandpappy Phineas Graham Sextus loaning a sack of grits and a horseshoe to some po’ white fool back in fucking 1843.”

And Scotty, too, offers up his own voice: “As [Darlene] got up the strength to heave that damn monster [a watermelon] up to the guy in the school bus, she feeling a intense need to hang with me again, so she could smoke and smoke and smoke until I filled up her empty insides with smoke, and we could do a spiral dance together up into that heavenly ballroom full of drugs way above the planet Earth.”

This is Hannaham’s gift, this wondrous moving from voice to voice while telling a fascinating and loathsome but still redemptive story.

Put this one on your must-read list for 2017!

Jennifer Spiegel is the author of two books, The Freak Chronicles (stories) and Love Slave (a novel). She’s also half of the book-reviewing gig, Snotty Literati.

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