When John Pritchard’s Junior Ray was published in 2005, Publisher’s Weekly called it a “hilariously tasteless debut novel.” The protagonist of this purported oral history is Junior Ray Loveblood, a retired sheriff’s deputy who delivers his account, dutifully transcribed by an academic researcher, of a manhunt for a crazed writer that took place decades earlier. The same character reappears in 2008’s Yazoo Blues, this time a little more outrageous as he describes the mental breakdown of a local poet and the history of an ill-fated Confederate voyage. Pritchard’s new novel, Sailing to Alluvium, firmly cements Junior Ray as the most profane narrator in American fiction, probably in any art form yet conceived.
Bawdy limericks or hip-hop lyrics don’t come close. A stand-up routine by the late Sam Kinison seems an innocent dream of a gentler past. Junior Ray’s authentically Southern, unreconstructed rants make even the sharpest Tarantino dialog appear but idle Sunday-school chatter. “Gotdammit, fukkit! The muthufukkas are makin me clean up the way I talk, gotdammit,” Junior Ray complains nearly 200 pages into Sailing to Alluvium. “If you don’t see a cussword in here where you need one, it ain’t my fault, sumbich.” The reason, he explains, is that “some suit-wearin coksukka’s wife raised hell about it, because she said she couldn read my books out loud to her tight-ass book club that mostly likes to set around and fart ‘Jesus Loves Me’ to each other about how fukkin lovely the autumn leaves is.” So Junior Ray reluctantly agrees to “tone it down.” But toned-down it does not stay.
Like Pritchard’s two previous novels, Sailing to Alluvium follows what could be called, on a dust jacket blurb, at least, a plot. In this case, Junior Ray and his long-time sidekick are “diktectives” on the trail of a home-grown serial killer. Apparently the psycho has connections to an ancient Memphis (or “Meffis,” as Junior Ray puts it) sorority that is dead-set against seeing the lost works of Leland Shaw—a crazed writer who was the subject of the manhunt in the first Junior Ray book—brought to light. But plot in a Pritchard novel meanders more widely than a Mississippi oxbow. Apropos of nothing, Junior Ray will announce, “I’ve been hearing about all emm redneck vampires and country-ass zombies, or whatever you call em, over in Arkansas. Well, Son! That’s Arkansas for you.” This declaration precedes the story of a shooting victim who came back to life in the funeral parlor, a story that has nothing to do with the slowly unfolding plot. In one lengthy digression among the many, Junior Ray helpfully explains that his narrative style is a tree with many branches.
Like other novels narrated by irascible coots—Berger’s Little Big Man and Nabokov’s Pale Fire, for example—part of the joy of Sailing to Alluvium is climbing out on the various branches with Junior Ray. While his digressions may be long, the chapters themselves are fairly short and offer additional rewards: a nineteenth-century style catalogue of scenes at the opening of each, the scene comically named in a manner reminiscent of Twain, and at the end of each chapter an actual, mostly reproducible Delta recipe “spoken” in the voice of Junior Ray. These include “Junior Ray’s Famous Fancy-Ass Scallops, Shrimp & Mushrooms Saw-Fukkin-Tayed in Olive Oil With Basil, Garlic & Cayenne (over Angel Hair Spaghetti)” and “Junior Ray’s Famous KKKobbler.”
That last recipe brings up a difficult aspect of all three novels: the language is not merely profane—it is both casually misogynist and frequently racist. Junior Ray admits that he has “found that it is fairly fukkin easy to be a racist—till, of course, you run into the worst of your own kind and meet the best of theirs. And I guess I coulda looked head on into the eyes of the worst of my kind just lookin in the gotdamn mirror, but people aint born bein able to see theirsevs, and it takes a while to do so.” This admission becomes the justification for an educated contemporary reader to stick with a narrator who is patently offensive on so many levels: despite his homegrown prejudices, in each of Pritchard’s novels Junior Ray has become able to see not only himself—with surprising honesty and insight—but also most of the others around him who inhabit the area commonly known as the Mississippi Delta.
Pritchard’s region of focus is in truth neither river nor delta, but a swath of alluvial plain stretching 200 miles from the gleaming mansions of Memphis in the north to the tangled Yoknapatawphian swamps in the south. Like the land itself, its inhabitants seldom fit easy labels and remain inscrutable to outsiders. Only a profane jester in the form of a “pekkawood” deputy can become a reliable guide to the Delta’s deeply entrenched class system and its genteel, carefully hidden insanity. Sailing to Alluvium is, in the end, a biting study of class differences, every bit as profane as the plays of Aristophanes and every gotdamn bit as funny.
[This review appeared originally on October 14, 2013.]
Michael Ray Taylor teaches journalism at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas. He is the author of three traditional books of nonfiction—Cave Passages, Dark Life, and Caves—as well as The Cat Manual, an ebook.