Omnivorous Reader

Omnivorous Reader

Letters from Death Row

Finding purpose behind bars

By Anne Blythe

Much has been written about how the art of letter writing has been in decline for years — except in prisons. Behind the barbed fences, putting pen to paper remains a vital connection to the world outside the prison walls. It was one such letter that launched Rap and Redemption on Death Row: Seeking Justice and Finding Purpose Behind Bars, a book by Alim Braxton and Mark Katz.

Braxton, born Michael Jerome Jackson on June 1, 1974, has been in prison since he was 19 years old, incarcerated more than a quarter-century of that time on North Carolina’s death row. His co-author, Katz, is a music professor at UNC-Chapel Hill who started the Carolina Hip Hop Institute in the summer of 2019.

Braxton, who chose the Muslim name Alim in prison, read a newspaper story about the program and wrote a letter to Katz in August 2019 asking for help. Rap music had been a big part of Braxton’s life, even before prison. He had been writing and recording lyrics over the phone but was not pleased with the sound quality.

Let’s get this out of the way: Braxton killed three people and robbed two others. He accepts responsibility and apologizes for killing Emmanuel Ogauyo, Donald Bryant and Dwayne Caldwell, as he does for robbing Susan Indula and Lindanette Walker.

“I know my situation may seem despairing and perhaps unlike anyone you’ve worked with before, but despite the circumstances I still have faith and I still have a dream, and I believe that with the right sound and someone who knows what to do with my vocals I can accomplish something BIG!” Braxton wrote to Katz, who held on to the letter for a month.

“I wasn’t sure I wanted to offer my help,” Katz writes in the preface to the book. “I didn’t know him, and after all, this request was coming from a convicted murderer.” He decided to respond anyway.

“I was intrigued by his passion. I also saw an earnestness is his neatly handwritten letter that amplified the sincerity of his words,” Katz writes.

That led to a relationship and the exchange of many letters to build a team of people who worked with Braxton to record his first album — the first-ever recorded from death row — and to this book.

“It wasn’t long into our correspondence that I came to believe that Alim’s letters were worth preserving and making public, and that is what spurred me to suggest the possibility of a book,” Katz writes. “Earlier in my career, I had spent many hours in archives reading correspondence by famous musicians. I would count myself lucky anytime I found a single paragraph of interest out of a batch of letters. That is not the case with Alim’s letters.”

Braxton’s blunt but colorful accounts of how he got to prison and his life inside it are contemplative and eye-opening. He gives readers a glimpse of the inmate hierarchy, the violence, the loss of dignity, privacy and rights, the code of survival and his path to redemption, love, a wife and even hope for the future despite his circumstances.

His rap, which is interspersed with the narrative, is personal and wide-ranging. His lyrics offer views of the George Floyd protests, COVID, pop culture and much more. In telling his story, Braxton wants to make sure that the stories of others — those on death row who maintain their innocence and have cases he believes involve wrongful convictions — are lifted up with his rap.

Braxton grew up in a rough-and-tumble Raleigh neighborhood about 2 miles from Central Prison. There are times he dreams of nearby places he visited as a boy or the rolling Dix Park across the busy boulevard from the prison cell “the size of a bathroom” he now lives in.

“I have fond memories of my childhood growing up in Raleigh, but as I wrote in my song, ‘Unremarkable,’ it’s also where I learned ‘to thug it properly.’ Stealing, fighting and drinking were rites of passage in my neighborhood,” Braxton writes. “My descent into crime didn’t happen overnight. I got my feet wet shoplifting around the age of 11. By the time I was 16 I had gone to prison for two months for stealing a car. I soaked up more criminal knowledge while inside, and after my release, the front gate became a revolving door, with three dozen arrests and three additional stints in prison.”

In vivid detail, Braxton goes on to describe his first time with a gun, his move from a pistol to a sawed-off shotgun, the first time he killed a person, and the almost out-of-body experience he had during those times. It was as if he was playing a role in a movie or a TV show, he wrote. He says the adage “the decisions you make today determine your tomorrow” rolls around in his head, especially when he thinks about the 1993 robbery spree where he claimed the lives of two people.

“Why didn’t I just leave at some point during that February night in 1993?” Braxton writes. “The truth is that I was afraid that I would look weak. I know now that it’s not weak to walk away from something you don’t want to be involved in. . . . Not walking away was a pivotal decision that changed the course of my life forever.”

Not walking away from a conflict in prison is what landed him on death row. He had been spared the death penalty and given two life sentences plus 110 years for the 1993 robbery-turned-kidnapping-turned-murder. Then he stabbed a fellow inmate to death.

Although North Carolina has had a de facto moratorium on the death penalty since 2006 while lawsuits make their way through the courts, the possibility of executions starting again looms.

“The true reality of life on Death Row is that every day is a life of fear, regret and humiliation . . . ,” Braxton wrote in a newspaper letter to the editor published in the book. “I live every day with the fear of standing before my God and accounting for my deeds.”  PS

Anne Blythe has been a reporter in North Carolina for more than three decades covering city halls, higher education, the courts, crime, hurricanes, ice storms, droughts, floods, college sports, health care and many wonderful characters who make this state such an interesting place.

Omnivorous Reader

Omnivorous Reader

Sweet Memories

A year on the journey to adulthood

By Jim Moriarty

My freshman year in college was nothing like the one Stephen E. Smith writes about in his memoir The Year We Danced. And yet it was exactly the same.

For any memoir to rise above the level of that dusty old book sitting on the mantel in your grandchildren’s house, it has to reach a level of universality — no easy feat — and The Year We Danced does it without breaking a sweat. Except on the dance floor, that is.

Written with a touch of humor and a bit of heartache by one of North Carolina’s finest poets, Smith’s tale of his freshman year at, then, Elon College in 1965-66 is sweet without being sentimental, poignant without being preachy. While simultaneously being tethered to and free from his family back in Maryland, and with the escalating war in Vietnam a kind of constant buzz in the background, The Year We Danced is nothing less than the launchpad of a life, a survey course in Adult 101 — complete with its own soundtrack. Along the way we’re introduced to an endlessly entertaining cast of characters, drawn by Smith in distinctive, rich detail.

Smith’s father, the boxing coach at the U.S. Naval Academy, had taken control of his son’s college admission process in March and delivered the results in June like an uppercut:

“We were devouring Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks and oven-baked frozen French fries smothered in Hunt’s ketchup, our standard Wednesday evening fare, when he stared at me across the dinner table and stated matter-of-factly, ‘You’re going to North Carolina in the fall.’

“I froze in mid-bite, a flaky chunk of trans-fat-engrossed fish stick balanced on my fork. ‘I am?’

“‘Yeah, you’re going to Elon College,’ he continued. ‘It’s far enough away that you won’t be running home every fifteen minutes.’”

We are introduced to Grandma Drager, who “never forgave her wayward first husband and never passed up a chance to deliver a sermon on the evils of drink,” who travels 350 miles by bus to hand-deliver to a young man about to venture forth into the world a baffling bit of wisdom in six words, memorable only in their towering insignificance — “Promise me you’ll wear tennis shoes.”

Once at Elon, where Smith’s father delivers both him and the message that he doesn’t expect his son to make it through the first semester, Stephen meets his roommate, Carl, who has arranged his shoes in the closet alphabetically by brand and has a pricy collection of 30 or 40 bottles of men’s cologne in parade formation on top of his dresser. “Unfortunately, Carl was the loquacious sort. He was going to sign up for physics and run for class president in addition to majoring in German. Then he started in on his personal life. I had no choice but to lie there in the dark and listen to him brag about his girlfriend, who was a freshman at a college in Virginia, and how they were going to get married before the year was out, a notion that struck me as utterly demented.”

As it turns out, it becomes clear rather quickly that Carl could have benefited from one, or several, of Grandma Drager’s exhortations on demon rum. “In the time we shared room 218, Carl never once exchanged his sheets for clean ones, and the pile of dirty laundry on his desk had spilled onto the floor beside his bed and included many of the garments he’d so neatly arranged in the closet on the first day of orientation. He’d sold off most of his bottles of cologne for beer money, and, as nearly as I could determine, he’d quit going to class altogether.”

On the plus side, Carl became the subject of an essay written by Smith for the spine-chilling professor of English 111, Tully Reed. Smith picked a subject he knew and wrote the hell out of it. When the “The Making of a Derelict,” with copy as clean as anything that ever ran in The New Yorker, gained nothing better than a C– (the highest grade in the class), Smith screwed up the courage to find Tully in his office and ask the fearsome man why.

“‘It’s not A or B work,’ he said, shaking his head, ‘not for a college freshman.’ He handed me my essay, took a drag on his Lucky Strike and returned to slinging red ink.”

Smith’s dance partner, and surely one of the first honest loves of his life, is Blondie, an upperclassman (they weren’t gender neutral in 1965), who can power drink a PBR and dance until curfew, if not dawn. At their favored club, the Castaways, she takes flight. “As I watched, the simple truth dawned on me: We might be at a club where there was only one acceptable dance step, but if Blondie didn’t want to dance the Shag, she didn’t have to. She was beautiful, unique, and she didn’t give a damn about attracting undue attention. She wasn’t there to prove herself to anyone; she was there to have a good time, and she intended to do just that.”

Also unique, and on the other end of the spectrum from the fearsome Tully, was another English professor, Manly Wade Wellman, a prolific author who would eventually call the Sandhills home, just as Smith would and does. “Wellman was barrel-chested and wide-shouldered, his graying hair combed back from his broad forehead. His round, open face was accentuated with heavy eyebrows and a prominent nose below which was cultivated a tweedy, slightly skewed Clark Gable mustache. What was immediately appreciable was the peculiar way in which his eyes reflected light. The very tops of his dark irises flickered, suggesting an inner illumination. . . . If Wellman was insistent, he was also endearing. I was immediately convinced that this guy had a sincere interest in who I was and what I thought. He wanted to know about my latest writing project as if it were of immense concern to the literary community. ‘What are you working on?’ he asked.”

In a few short months, Smith had met both the carrot and the stick.

In the end, Blondie moves on. As all of our Blondies do. Then Smith gets the news that a boyhood friend has been killed in combat. “The spring of ’66 was early in the war, and although the weekly casualties were the highest since our involvement in Vietnam, I doubted anyone at Elon could name a friend who’d died in that distant war. I kept the news to myself.”

But not the sense of helplessness and futility. “I reviewed the times Barrie and I had spent together, my memory sliding from one image to another in no particular sequence — the hours playing hide-and-seek on dusky evenings in the little town of Easton, Maryland, the summer days I visited with him in Salisbury, where we skipped stones from the banks of the Wicomico. But what I remembered most vividly was a summer afternoon in 1957 — we were both eleven — when Barrie and I were singing our favorite top ten rock ‘n’ roll songs and I mentioned that I was fond of a country song, ‘The Tennessee Waltz.’ ‘I can teach you how to play it on the piano,’ he said, and then he sat down at the family’s upright Baldwin and with uncharacteristic purposefulness showed me how to pick out the melody on the white keys. It was a good moment to hold in memory, affirmative and focused, his casual smile, his fingers walking along the ivories.”

Smith’s memoir, to be released this month by Apprentice House Press, is packed full of good moments. If you know someone who is going to be a college freshman — or if you were ever young once yourself — this trip down memory lane is well worth taking.  PS

Jim Moriarty is the Editor of PineStraw and can be reached at jjmpinestraw@gmail.com.

Omnivorous Reader

Omnivorous Reader

The Color of Music

Symphony of Secrets plucks at the heartstrings

By Anne Blythe

(Photograph By David Bickley)

Brendan Slocumb, a composer-turned-novelist with deep ties to North Carolina, hopes to one day be “the Stephen King of musical thrillers.” That’s what the author of Symphony of Secrets and The Violin Conspiracy told Katie Buzard, an Illinois Public Media arts writer, in a 2023 interview.

With two books in his repertoire from the past two years and a third due out in 2025, the gifted writer is well on pace to keep up with the “King of Horror,” whose first three books were published in a three-year span. Slocumb’s most recent, Symphony of Secrets, has been chosen as one of the 2024 selections for North Carolina Reads, a statewide book club created by N.C. Humanities, a nonprofit affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, because of its exploration of “racial, social and gender equity and the history and culture of North Carolina.”

The book is set mostly in New York but features visits to Oxford and the Granville County public library. Building on some of the same themes from his first book, Slocumb continues to explore the torment of institutional and everyday racism in his second as he toggles between the present day classical music world and the 1920s and ’30s in New York.

The novel opens with Frederic Delaney, a deflated early 20th century composer whose plummet from stardom was almost as rapid as his meteoric rise, going through his pre-concert ritual 16 hours before his death — Champagne poured into two glasses and a toast to a photograph of his as yet unidentified collaborator.

We are quickly introduced to professor Bern Hendricks, a musicologist at the University of Virginia who has been consumed with Delaney (a composer of Slocumb’s invention) for much of his life. He knows every piece, all the operas and songs to the most minute detail.

Bern is deep into one composition, enjoying the layering of the alto and tenor saxes over the French horns — and the “French horns’ epic battle with the trombones, when the horns fought for supremacy, but the trombones would, in just seconds, kick their asses” — when he is summoned by the august and influential Delaney Foundation. It’s the organization that shaped Bern’s life from his early days in Milwaukee as a “poor bologna sandwich-eating kid with a beat-up French horn” to the respected academician he has become.

The foundation has uncovered what is believed to be the original draft of Red, a long-lost Delaney opera and an enigma of modern American music. It doesn’t take much coaxing to lure Bern from the Charlottesville campus to the foundation’s plush New York offices, even with the hush-hush of it all. His task is to authenticate Red, the final piece in Delaney’s Rings Quintet, a series of operas inspired by the yellow, blue, black, green and red rings of the Olympic flag.

What he discovers, though, with the help of Eboni Washington — a brilliant, sassy coding whiz from the Bronx — is a gripping history with the potential to destroy both the reputation of the composer Bern idolizes and the foundation interested in preserving an untarnished image of Delaney.

Central to the plot line is one of the most interesting characters of Slocumb’s Symphony: Josephine Reed, a neurodivergent Black woman from North Carolina with a gift for music. She arrives in New York in 1918 with a small, crumpled piece of paper in her gloved hand. We find out why she has traveled all that distance when she rounds a street corner and hears “a trombone, a clarinet and then a trumpet lifting itself up like a benediction, blessing the air with a run of notes that Josephine breathed in like the smell of the earth after a spring rain.”

She hears the sounds of the city — the subways, elevator doors, automobiles, the wind blowing through tunnels — in musical scales. “The wind whistled in a wavering B-flat up to an F-sharp,” Slocumb writes.

What further sets Josephine apart is how she sees music in colors: pinks, blues, greens, hints of brown, red and more. She has an innate vision and makes distinctive doodles on composition manuscripts that lead to the creation of masterpieces for which she never was credited — Delaney was. It was a photograph of Josephine that Delaney saluted shortly before his death.

Reed becomes a captive in an industry that devalues her because of her skin color and uniqueness. Though she eventually sheds her fragility and finds the confidence to stand up for herself, Josephine’s life comes to a tragic end. With her death, the story of the true composer of the celebrated Delaney operas remains buried until Bern and Eboni find a shipping trunk in the basement of one of Josephine’s distant relatives, and the real source of the operatic sensation that won global acclaim is unearthed.

Slocumb, who grew up in Fayetteville and got a degree in music education from UNC Greensboro, plucks at the heartstrings of his readers throughout Symphony of Secrets. In this fast-paced and galvanizing musical thriller, he reminds us that what’s past is, indeed, prologue, that white supremacy, cultural appropriation and access barriers that existed in the 1920s persist.  PS

Anne Blythe has been a reporter in North Carolina for more than three decades covering city halls, higher education, the courts, crime, hurricanes, ice storms, droughts, floods, college sports, health care and many wonderful characters who make this state such an interesting place to live.

Omnivorous Reader

Omnivorous Reader

A Gift to Art and Us

The legacy of Fred Chappell

By Stephen E. Smith

Courage.

That noun rarely comes to mind when considering the attributes a writer should possess in abundance. But what a writer does — the act of creating through fiction, poetry, drama, etc. — is something anyone could do who has the heart, the skill, and the courage to do it. And courage is what Fred Chappell, North Carolina’s former poet laureate and career-long creative writing teacher, instilled in his students during his 40 years as a professor in the Master of Fine Arts program at UNC Greensboro.

Fred died on Jan. 4 at age 87, and I suspect he would find this highfalutin’ courage stuff a trifle excessive. He would laugh and shrug it off as so much puffery. But in fact, courage was Fred’s greatest gift to his students. They had to demonstrate the fortitude to survive his graduate writing workshops. If you couldn’t take the criticism, you had no business pursuing a writing career. Moreover, you’d be unlikely to take the chances necessary to produce art that’s compelling in its originality. 

Fred taught by example, demonstrating great courage as a writer from his early Southern gothic novels to his last line of poetry, taking his readers into unexpected precincts, exploring new ground within the context of traditional verse and prose, while always challenging and surprising and delighting his readers.

Of the more than 30 books and hundreds of uncollected stories, poems and literary essays that might be reviewed in this space, one book stands out as both traditional, experimental and uniquely ambitious — Midquest: A Poem — for which Fred was awarded the Bollingen Prize.

Originally published as four chapbooks — River, Wind Mountain, Bloodfire and Earthsleep — the poems (each volume is presented as a single poem composed of shorter poems) appeared from 1975 through 1980, when Fred was in his 30s. Constructed around the elements of water, wind, fire and earth, the work that comprised Midquest was a startling achievement following Fred’s first volume of poetry, World Between the Eyes. When other poets were playing it safe with carefully controlled collections of verse, Fred suddenly expanded the national poetic palette by employing a startling range of forms. Reviewers labeled Midquest “a verse-novel,” but such descriptions don’t capture the variety of exploration and the sense of adventure evident in each “poem” in the collection.

The arrival of Midquest had an effect on late 20th century audiences similar to that of Leaves of Grass on 19th century readers. Within a familiar format, there’s an explosion of energy and constant exploration, all of it mingled with Fred’s depth of knowledge, range of diction, and implacable intellectual curiosity. Fred lays it all on the line and he makes it work. Midquest could only have been written by a poet of extraordinary courage.

The poem “Firewood,” which appears in Bloodfire, is nothing less than astonishing. A stream-of-consciousness foray through the mind of a persona who is chopping wood, it’s demanding of readers in its humorous wordplay and levels of philosophic allusions. As the persona hacks away at the heart of oak, he muses in some of the densest language imaginable. Here’s a bit of “Firewood”:

. . . we can

even half read the dark that sucks the fire away

& swallows, hearth being dug out of earth &

overpowering entropy of earth clouds from the

beginning the wild root mass of fire, it was sun

jammed into dirt that raised the tree, Lucretius’

seed of fire ignis semina is seed semina mortuis

(dirt we rose from, dirt we’ll never forget)

of death in that same split second, moment

split by the man’s hand hard as an iron wedge . . . .

And so the poem goes for more than 450 lines that engage, delight, mock, question, enlighten, challenge, amuse, and befuddle the determined reader, all of it sustained by an energy that’s part elegiac, folkloric, spiritual, and droll. If “Firewood” is a trifle demanding of the reader, it’s emotionally immersing and immensely satisfying as a work of art.

I was out of the MFA program and publishing books of poetry when I read “Firewood.” The sheer brilliance of the work left me with the knowledge that I’d never achieve such excellence but that I’d be compelled to try, even if it took forever. Fred’s Midquest had relegated me and my fellow poets to the status of neighborhood rhymesters.

If “Firewood” demonstrates a degree of exclusivity, “Cleaning the Well” from River is generous and inclusive — a narrative poem about a boy lowered into a well to clean out years of accumulated detritus:

Two worlds there are. One you think

You know; the Other is the Well

In hard December down I went.

“Now clean it out good.” Lord, I sank

Like an anchor. My grand-dad leant

Above. His face blazed bright as steel. . . .

Beginning his descent into the unknown, the persona imagines:

Ribcage of drowned warlock gleaming,

Rust-chewed chain mail, or a plangent

Sunken bell tolling to the heart

Of Earth. (They’d surely chosen an art-

less child to sound the soundless dreaming . . . .

What does the poet find? He discovers random objects right out of the possibilities of life:

Twelve plastic pearls, monopoly

Money, a greenish rotten cat

Rubber knife, toy gun,

Clock guts, wish book, door key,

An indescribable female hat.

Hauled back to the surface, the poet muses:

I had not found death good.

“Down there I kept thinking I was dead.”

“Aw, you’re all right,” he said.

Fred followed Midquest with more than 25 books — novels, short story collections, and volumes of poetry — material crafted with his unique combinations of precision, intellect, generosity, and courage. But Midquest remains a singular masterpiece, a poem every lover of great literature should read and cherish.  PS

Stephen E. Smith graduated with an MFA in creative writing from UNC Greensboro in 1971. He was one of Fred Chappell’s students, and a friend. Apprentice House Press will publish Smith’s memoir, The Year We Danced, on May 7.

Omnivorous Reader

Omnivorous Reader

Dicey Drama in Haiti

Looking for treasure but finding trouble

By Anne Blythe

Given the political fracture in this country and the intensified drumbeat of questions about the survival of democracy, it might seem daunting to tuck into Ben Fountain’s Devil Makes Three: A Novel.

The sheer size of the North Carolina native’s latest book — 531 pages — is intimidating enough. When you throw in that it’s a deep dive into life in Haiti immediately following the 1991 military coup that sent President Jean-Bertrande Aristide into exile, you might be tempted to put this novel about abusive power, excessive greed and dictatorship back on the shelf and save it for a less divisive time.

Don’t do that. Instead, open Fountain’s work of fiction. Let the story pull you from a once blissful beachfront through streets littered with butchered corpses and the headless body of a mayor, to crumbling estates, voodoo priestesses and treasure hunts on the turquoise waters lapping against the former French slave colony fallen under the rule of an oppressive military regime. A political thriller and adventure-filled page-turner, Devil Makes Three explores a country in turmoil from different angles through four main characters in their 20s.

Matt Amaker is a rootless American college dropout drawn to Haiti with unrealized ambitions after circulating through the Caribbean as a “dive gypsy.” Alix Variel, the ambitious and beguiling son of a prominent Haitian family, persuades Matt to come with him to Haiti to start a dive shop of their own catering to a wave of the expected tourism before the coup upended the country’s dreams of democracy and prompted international trade embargoes.

Despite the upheaval, Matt and Alix have not given up all hope on ScubaRave being a successful business, and turn their attention to hunting Conquistador treasure and artifacts in the under-explored ocean waters off Haiti.

“Haiti has treasure,” Alix tells Matt while they are smoking a joint and pondering their future.

One wreck he was aware of had as many as 12 cannon among the wreckage. If they were bronze, they could attract high-end collectors, deep-pocketed people who might pay as much as one Saudi oil prince had — $600,000 for a pair of cannon.

“Why the hell are we messing with scuba,” Alix asked. “We should be hunting treasure all the time.”

“Because it’s a really stupid business, that’s why,” Matt responded. “A few people make some money and everybody else loses their shirt. It’s like Vegas, the lottery, it’s mainly just luck. You happen to dig over here instead of a quarter mile over there, that’s the difference between a fortune and wasting your life. Screw that. It’s too random for me . . . Treasure is trouble.”

That prognostication is a driving line of the novel, which also focuses on Audrey O’Donnell, a rookie CIA officer, a sharp and aspiring government agent also known as Shelly Graver who quickly finds herself involved in ethically questionable drug deals and agency-supported operations to keep Aristide out of power.

All the while, she wrestles with the part of her job that calls for manipulating people, even as she’s romantically involved with Alix. Audrey’s belief that it is in Haiti’s best interest “to integrate into the global economy, which last time she checked, was overwhelmingly trending toward the free market American model” puts her in direct opposition to Misha, Alix’s sister and a love interest of Matt’s.

Misha returns to Haiti in the midst of researching and writing a thesis at Brown University with a working subtitle “Psychological Rupture in the Literature of the Black Atlantic.” Instead of going back to school while her homeland is in tumult, she goes to work at a public clinic where the CIA tries to mine the medical records of her patients to test their political loyalties. “The coup d’etat had unfolded as a kind of twisted affirmation of her still gestating dissertation,” Fountain writes.

In a country where the minimum wage was $5 a day in the early ’90s, Misha wrestled with “the contradiction of the lived experience” in her homeland. “Once again Haiti was instructing the world, pushing ahead of the historical curve, and it was paying the price in blood and grief,” Fountain writes. “Why take to the streets if you are already free, as you’d been told every day of your life you were. Forget your slack stomach and aching back, your weary mind. Whatever else might be said or alleged of him, Aristide gave voice to, made visible, the contradiction of the lived experience of the country.”

Despite their differences, Misha and Audrey come together to help save Matt and Alix from the throes of dangerous and misguided adventures brought about by their attempts to “float up” bronze cannon. The men find themselves being arrested by soldiers on “conspiracy to commit terrorism charges” and are thrown in prison.

Haiti’s top general, however, has a keen interest in scuba diving and treasure hunting, and springs Matt from prison on a working furlough to help find Christopher Columbus’ Santa Maria before the 500th anniversary of its sinking in December 1492.

By making Haiti the focus of Devil Makes Three, Fountain is able to weave themes of power, politics, race, history, capitalism, globalism, voodoo and the legacy of plantation slavery throughout the novel using the characters’ dialogue as they down rum and tonics, smoke marijuana and feast on creole dishes.

Whether it’s Fountain’s description of Port-au-Prince as a city with “a dull orange haze hanging over everything like a fulminating cloud of Cheetos dust” or his tightly knit storylines, this Dallas-based lawyer-turned-writer, born in Chapel Hill, raised in Elizabeth City and Cary, gives the reader a lot to digest.  PS

Anne Blythe has been a reporter in North Carolina for more than three decades covering city halls, higher education, the courts, crime, hurricanes, ice storms, droughts, floods, college sports, health care and many wonderful characters who make this state such an interesting place.

Omnivorous Reader

Omnivorous Reader

The Scars of Our History

Will revisionism invade the book world?

By Stephen E. Smith

The world is surely shifting beneath our feet. What was Fort Bragg is now Fort Liberty. In many small Southern towns, the obligatory statues memorializing the Confederate dead have come tumbling down with a predictable thud. Even the most revered Southern monument of them all, the edifice of Gen. Robert E. Lee, a bronze equestrian statue with the South’s greatest general mounted on his horse Traveller, was unceremoniously plucked from its imposing pedestal and melted down for scrap.

So here’s the question: In a new world where book banning, the most blatant and least effective form of censorship, is all the snazz, how do revisionist attitudes affect the publishing of books about the Civil War? It’s probably too early to say, but two new offerings are testing the market. Elizabeth R. Varon’s Longstreet: The Confederate General Who Defied the South, and On Great Fields: The Life and Unlikely Heroism of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, by Ronald C. White, are waiting on bookstore shelves.

Those unschooled in Civil War lore and history need only know that Longstreet was Lee’s second in command, referred to by Lee as his “old war horse.” A graduate of West Point, he fought in the Mexican War, was friends with Grant, and played a pivotal role in the Southern rebellion. He’s most remembered for his participation — or lack thereof — in Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, where he disagreed with Lee’s determination to attack the Union position on Cemetery Ridge. Varon asks the question that has persisted over the years: Did his (Longstreet’s) misgivings about Lee’s plan translate into battlefield insubordination? Did he deliberately delay Lee’s attack, thus dooming it to failure? Gen. Pickett asked Longstreet if he should proceed with the advance, and Longstreet merely nodded. Scholars and Civil War buffs have spent the last 160 years attempting to discern Longstreet’s motives.

After the surrender at Appomattox, Longstreet moved to New Orleans, a Union-held city that supported a large anti-secession population and a well-educated Black community, a place where Reconstruction might have succeeded. Longstreet threw himself into Republican Party politics and promoted Black suffrage. He helped establish a biracial police force, sat on the New Orleans school board, which was racially integrated, and was instrumental in fostering civil rights laws. But violence soon enough became endemic in the South and in Reconstruction Louisiana. Longstreet attempted to suppress it, but terrorist groups such as the White League and the Knights of the White Camellia held sway. In 1874, the White League attempted to overthrow the state’s Reconstruction government. Longstreet sided with the militia and police, but only the intervention of federal troops restored order. For the remainder of his life, Longstreet continued to speak up for Black voting rights, which earned him condemnation from his former brothers-in-arms.

No statue of Longstreet existed in the South or on the Gettysburg battlefield until the 1998 unveiling of “a decidedly unheroic” likeness of the general riding “an undersized horse, positioned on the grass rather than atop a pedestal, on the edge of the battlefield park, blocked from view by trees.”

So why aren’t there more monuments to Lee’s “old war horse”? Longstreet’s embrace of Reconstruction rendered him unfit as a symbol of the “Lost Cause,” thus proving, Varon observes, that the small-town Confederate statues were not simply monuments to heroism but “totems to white supremacy.”   

“We like to bestow praise on historical figures who had the courage of their convictions,” she writes. “Longstreet’s story is a reminder that the arc of history is sometimes bent by those who had the courage to change their convictions.”

There’s no dearth of statues honoring Gen. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. A bronze likeness stands in Chamberlain Freedom Park in Brewer, Maine. A second statue was erected in Brunswick, Maine, not far from Bowdoin College, where he served as president following his participation in the Civil War, and a third statue of the general overlooks the Gettysburg Battlefield, facing outward from Little Roundtop.

Chamberlain was lifted from obscurity by Michael Shaara’s 1974 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Killer Angels and Ken Burns’ 1990 documentary The Civil War, both of which rehash Chamberlain’s and the 20th Maine Infantry’s crucial defense of Little Roundtop during the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg. Ronald C. White’s On Great Fields: The Life and Unlikely Heroism of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain is the latest biography to explore Chamberlain’s remarkable and complicated life.

Rather than concentrating on Chamberlain’s Civil War exploits, White delves deeply into the general’s personal life, both pre- and post-war. He examines Chamberlain’s deep Calvinist faith and his love of music and learning — he was fluent in nine languages — that dominated his adolescence and shaped his adulthood. His lengthy and difficult courtship of and marriage to Fanny Adams is explored in sometimes agonizing detail, and his time as president of Bowdoin College and as governor of Maine is fully explicated.

Although he was much admired in Maine, Chamberlain’s post-war years were anything but tranquil. His marriage was troubled. He and Fanny were at one point estranged, and she implied that marital abuse may have been a factor in their separation. Chamberlain never denied the accusation. In January 1880, Chamberlain was called upon to prevent violence in the state Capitol during the gubernatorial election. The Maine State House had been taken over by armed men, and the governor appointed Chamberlain to take command of the Maine Militia. He disarmed the insurrectionists and stayed in the State House until the Maine Supreme Court decided the election’s outcome. White goes on to expand on Chamberlain’s role as an entrepreneur, his ventures into Florida railroads and land development, and various New York businesses.

On February 24, 1914, succumbing at last to infections caused by an old war wound, the 85-year-old Chamberlain died at his home in Portland, 50 years after a minie ball ripped through his body at Petersburg. He had lived most of his life with excruciating pain caused by the wound, refusing opioids that were legal and readily available.

Near the conclusion of Burns’ The Civil War, the death of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain is announced: “The war was over,” the narrator says. Given the lessons implicit in these new biographies and the skullduggery of contemporary politics, readers are likely to question that simple declarative sentence.  PS

Stephen E. Smith is a retired professor and the author of seven books of poetry and prose. He’s the recipient of the Poetry Northwest Young Poet’s Prize, the Zoe Kincaid Brockman Prize for poetry and four North Carolina Press Awards.

The Omnivorous Reader

The Omnivorous Reader

Tales to Tell

The journey of a lifetime

By Anne Blythe

Kelley Shinn spent a long afternoon in a bar with poet Eric Trethewey some years back and told him a story that made him grab her by the shoulders and implore her to write it down.

Shinn had recently returned to the United States from a years-long trip abroad, a nomadic journey she organized to bring attention to the predicament of landmine survivors. As noble an undertaking as that might be, it was not the typical goodwill mission highlighting the plight of amputees whose limbs were blown off in war-torn lands.

A single mother at the time, Shinn — who has prosthetic legs below her knees — was still recovering from her own physical and emotional wounds when she embarked on her global expedition in a tricked-out Land Rover with her whip-smart 3-year-old, Celie. The Wounds That Bind Us, her story chronicling that journey, went through many renditions before becoming the memoir published this year by West Virginia University Press.

Shinn tried a series of short stories first. Next she rewrote it as a novel. “Then I had an agent from New York that was interested in it,” Shinn, now an Ocracoke resident, recounted at a reading at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill. “And she said, ‘You say it’s based on autobiography. Give me a percentage.’ So I wrote her back and said at this point, it’s 75 percent true. She goes, ‘Here’s my problem. It’s too unbelievable for fiction. You need to rewrite it as memoir.’”

The narrative that came together over the next decade is a phenomenal adventure story that will pull you to the edge of your seat while marveling at Shinn’s candor, steely backbone, vulnerability and wisdom. She takes readers on this emotional ride with self-deprecating humor, artistic prose and a welcome hopefulness that oozes throughout the pages. There are times you want to sit her down, stop her from doing what she’s about to do and tell her the danger’s not worth it — think climbing onto wreckage of a bombed-out bridge in Bosnia high above the Neretva River to get the perfect photo. After all, there’s Celie to think about, the child she brought into the world after 52 hours of labor. Her daughter is her sidekick, a worldly little girl who loves her “to the moon and back.” Who will respond “I love you the whole universe” if Shinn succumbs to unnecessary risks?

Overwhelmingly, readers are more likely to be cheering for Shinn, engrossed in a story that keeps them hungering for the next escapade while also hoping that any one of the many interesting people she encounters along the way can keep her in check.

Shinn was a promising cross-country runner at 16 years old, when her body and life were forever changed by a rare form of bacterial meningitis initially misdiagnosed as flu. Although that’s not how she starts the memoir, she flashes back to that time in the hospital while thinking about landmine victims in Bosnia.

“I’ve got more wires running around and through me than an early desktop computer,” Shinn writes. “A month ago my coach was talking to me about scholarships for cross-country. Lord in heaven, how I wish I could jump off this bed right now and run, just run through the Metroparks, down the city sidewalks, run until my heart pounds in my chest, until the sweat breaks out all over my body and evaporates into thin air.”

There is a sense throughout The Wounds That Bind Us that Shinn is running. Running, running and running. She’s racing away from the pains and sorrows of her childhood and abusive relationships while, at the same time, jogging slowly toward healing and enlightenment. Shinn scratches at deep wounds from being put up for adoption by her birth mother and raised by an adoptive mother who beat her “in a quick rage, with a stick, a belt or a hand.” She explores the mindset that pushed her toward doomed romantic relationships like the one with a scheming first husband who glommed onto her after the well-publicized settlement of her malpractice lawsuit.

This is not a woe-is-me tell-all, though.

Shinn describes unforgettable scenes such as the overnight stay in a brothel with Celie; the off-road thrill rides on steep, rocky terrains; and the beautiful landscapes of Greece. Her stories are filled with memorable characters, from cab drivers to their neighbors in the United Kingdom; from her Greek classics professor turned travel companion to the soldiers, farmers and others with bodies forever altered by landmines; from the many people who care for Celie; all the way to Athena, the Land Rover (a trusted character itself) that does the transporting from England to Serbia, Bosnia and Greece.

It is well worth it to take the journey with Shinn, “that’s two Ns and no shins,” she jokes. She’s funny, daredevilish but relatable. That poet at the bar, a man she would have a relationship and son with, was right. Shinn’s story needed to be written.   PS

Anne Blythe has been a reporter in North Carolina for more than three decades covering city halls, higher education, the courts, crime, hurricanes, ice storms, droughts, floods, college sports, health care and many wonderful characters who make this state such an interesting place.

The Omnivorous Reader

The Omnivorous Reader

Portrait of a Genius

When art and politics collide

By Stephen E. Smith

At a moment in our cultural/political history when we disagree about almost everything, you’d expect an ambitious pundit to pen a bestseller titled America vs. America: A Definitive Analysis of Our Cantankerousness. Although books aplenty attempt such revelations, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to articulate the forces at work in the here and now, but literary critic Scott Eyman has given us the next best thing to an explanation: Charlie Chaplin vs. America: When Art, Sex, and Politics Collided, an exposé/biography of a man who defined, at least in part, the last century, and who suffered the slings and arrows of an America gone wacky.

Eyman’s latest offering — he’s authored six previous books on the film industry and various movie stars — may strike readers as a story told a trifle too late. After all, Charlie Chaplin is ancient history, a wobbly, bowler-topped, black and white stick figure balanced on a rubbery cane who inexplicably entertained our grandparents with the silent knowledge that authentic comedy has its source in the concealment of anguish. The day-to-day details of Chaplin’s life notwithstanding, there’s insight aplenty in this cautionary tale of an artist whose universal popularity among Americans diminished to the point that he was run out of the country and forced to take up residence in Switzerland for the later years of his life.

Chaplin was born in England and suffered a childhood of poverty and hardship. His alcoholic father abandoned the family, and he and his brother were sent to a workhouse. His mother was committed to a mental institution when he was 14, and Chaplin was forced to find work touring theaters and music halls as a stage actor and comedian. At 19, he toured with a company that traveled the United States, where he eventually signed with Keystone Studios. By the age of 20, he was the best-known man in the world.

Chaplin co-founded United Artists and went on to write and produce The Kid, A Woman of Paris, The Gold Rush and The Circus. After the introduction of talkies, he released two silent films, City Lights and Modern Times, both film classics, followed by his first sound film, The Great Dictator, which satirized Adolf Hitler. After abandoning his Tramp persona, his later films included Monsieur Verdoux, Limelight and A King in New York. His credits and awards would fill this page, but less-than-knowledgeable readers need only grasp this basic fact: Chaplin was a creative genius who had a profound influence on popular culture and the art of filmmaking.

The focus of Eyman’s biography is Chaplin’s fall from grace. Early in his career, Chaplin was accused in a paternity suit in which he was found guilty, although blood tests proved conclusively that he was not the father (at the time, the state of California didn’t recognize blood tests as evidence); but the scandal was enough to attract the attention of gossip columnists, Hedda Hopper foremost among them, who were always collecting dirt on celebrity targets that would sell newspapers.

More destructive to Chaplin’s reputation was the public curiosity regarding his politics. Although he lived much of his life in the United States — indeed, he made most of his fortune here — he never applied for citizenship, which generated a cloud of suspicion that never quite dissipated. Chaplin claimed to be an anarchist, “not in the bomb-throwing sense,” Eyman writes, “but in his dislike of rules and a preference for as much liberty as the law allowed, and maybe just a bit more.” In truth, he was little interested in politicians and politics, outside the restraints placed on the arts by contemporaries who were politically minded.

Having suffered through a childhood of poverty, he harbored a great concern for the underprivileged, which is evident in all his films. But when he released Modern Times, which thematically explored the unending struggle against authoritarianism, and The Great Dictator, which mocked Adolf Hitler, both films, humorous but essentially didactic in intent, further thrust Chaplin into the political arena. Prior to our involvement in World War II, he publicly advocated an alliance with the Soviet Union, and members of the press and the public were scandalized by his marriage when he was 54, to 18-year-old Oona O’Neill, the daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill.

Because of his support of Russia, Chaplin was accused of being a communist sympathizer, and the FBI opened an investigation, all of which fed into the Red Scare and McCarthyism of the early 1950s. Chaplin fell into such disfavor with the public that he was denied re-entry to the U.S. after leaving for the London premiere of his film Limelight.

Eyman’s book is a “social, political and cultural history of the crucial period in the life of a seminal twentieth-century figure — the original independent filmmaker who gradually fell into moral combat with his adopted country precisely because of the beliefs that form the core of his personality and films.”

Certainly, the activities of the press — particularly the gossip columnists who fed on Chaplin’s foibles; and the FBI, which launched a long, out-of-control investigation of Chaplin’s life — will give the thoughtful reader pause. FBI files on Chaplin ran to over 1,900 pages, mostly hearsay procured from dubious sources, material that was fed to friendly reporters who used the misinformation to besmirch Chaplin’s character and promote themselves.

Are there definitive elements in Chaplin’s life that precisely parallel the political/cultural moment in which we find ourselves? Probably not. As usual, Mark Twain is credited with having said it best: “History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes,” and readers, regardless of their politics, are likely to find themselves singing along with whatever sad tune history is humming at the moment.   PS

Stephen E. Smith is a retired professor and the author of seven books of poetry and prose. He is the recipient of the Poetry Northwest Young Poet’s Prize, the Zoe Kincaid Brockman Prize for poetry and four North Carolina Press Awards.

The Omnivorous Reader

The Omnivorous Reader

Read and Dead

A librarian’s cozy mystery series

By Anne Blythe

Librarians are good at deciphering mysteries. Just ask any card-carrying library fan. They can be sherpas, of a sort, guiding readers from behind the confines of their reference desks to a world of information often only a bookshelf or computer click away.

Some are good at creating them, too, as Victoria Gilbert, a former librarian-turned-mystery writer, shows in A Cryptic Clue, the first book in her new Hunter and Clewe cozy mystery series.

Raised in the “shadows of the Blue Ridge mountains,” Gilbert has been a reference librarian, a research librarian and a library director so, in the vein of “write what you know,” it’s easy to see why the protagonist in her new series is Jane Hunter, a 60-year-old university librarian forced into early retirement and a new chapter in life.

Gilbert’s Jane has tinges of Agatha Christie’s Miss Jane Marple in her, although she is a divorcee, not a spinster, who still wants to work for a living to pad her paltry pension. That desire to find a new vocation leads Gilbert’s chief sleuth to her new boss, Cameron Clewe — Cam, to those who know the 33-year-old unconventional multi-millionaire well — who was looking for an archivist and hired Jane sight unseen. Cam not only inherited tremendous wealth at a young age, but also an estate so large that it houses a private library, guest quarters and grand rooms where the well-to-do and those aspiring to affluence gather for glamorous galas, glitzy fundraisers and seasonal soirees.

Although Jane describes her new boss as “leading man material,” he’s a nervous type whose lack of a filter makes him a blunt, often humorless, speaker.

“I didn’t realize you were so old,” Cam says upon meeting Jane in his library. “And rather heavier than I expected, given that photo on the university website.”

Jane, on the other hand, is a woman used to working with college students and the mother of a grown daughter, an actress with a middle name that might as well be “drama.” She checks herself instead of blurting out the first thing that pops into her mind.

“That photo is a bit dated,” Jane responds, keeping her eyes on the prize she did not want to lose. Her Social Security payments wouldn’t kick in for at least two more years. She needs the work. Furthermore, she’s interested in sifting through and cataloging “the books and papers connected to classic mystery and detective authors” that have been amassed in Aircroft, Cam’s mansion. “As for my current appearance — years working in academia has taken its toll, it seems. But I am certain you hired me for my expertise, not my looks.”

Such is the beginning of the relationship that brings two Sherlocks from very different circumstances together to solve a mystery that holds a reader’s interest through the very last page.

The whodunit kicks off on a Monday at Aircroft after a charity fete over the weekend. Jane walks into the library on her first day of work, travel mug filled with coffee in hand, to find the body of Ashley Allen crumpled on the floor, “unquestionably, irrevocably dead.”

After “fighting the urge to retch” and scanning the crime scene with a surprisingly calm detachment, Jane staggers into the hallway, slumps against the wall and slides to the floor. “There’s a dead body in the library,” Jane thought. “That room meant to be my workplace is now a murder scene.”

It’s not just any body, either. Ashley was Cam’s ex-girlfriend, someone Jane had seen her new boss arguing with days earlier while touring the garden grounds. More than 100 people had been at Aircroft for the party the night before. Ashley had been there too, and was still clad in her silver sequined dress.

“You do realize who will be their number one suspect, of course,” Cam says after seeing the crime scene.

Quickly Cam decides to be proactive and use his resources to investigate Ashley’s death on his own. He turns to Jane for help. “I refuse to lounge around while the authorities build a case against me,” Cam declares. But, as his assistant Lauren points out, Cam is agoraphobic, rarely venturing out past the gates surrounding his home. That’s where Jane comes in.

“I’ll need help collecting information from the wider community. Which is what I’d like you two to do,” Cam tells Jane and Lauren. “Bring me back any clues you uncover, and I can piece it together, and perhaps solve this case before the authorities start casting about for a scapegoat. Namely me.”

The hunt for clues is added to Jane’s assigned duties. As Cam sets out to collect information from the kitchen staff and guests who had been staying in his house, Jane pursues the story outside Aircroft, casting about town for hints why the beautiful and wealthy Ashley has been killed, presumably by a fatal head wound delivered with a blunt object.

There is no shortage of suspects, either. Ashley left a trail of aggrieved casualties from former romances, business ventures and injurious family dynamics. As Jane and Cam glean the many storylines from Gilbert’s cast of characters, suspects are added to and subtracted from the list. Jane’s landlord, Vince, a retired reporter from the local newspaper, and his girlfriend, Donna, a former secretary at the local high school, provide background depth to clues that Jane turns up from her sleuthing.

In addition to the love interests and resentful entrepreneurs wooed and abandoned by the victim, readers meet the quirky Aircroft house guests, the detached Allen family — all of whom were to be left out of the deep-pocketed grandmother’s will — their housekeeper and others.

Gilbert keeps her readers guessing while entertaining them with snippets about mystery writers and their well-known characters, such as Archie, the droll narrator and sidekick to Nero Wolfe, the armchair detective brought to life by Rex Stout.

As Jane and Cam cross suspect after suspect off their lists while unraveling the mystery of Ashley’s killer, they uncover new secrets and riddles that are tidily wrapped up at the end of the novel. As the two share a pizza with the riddle solved, it’s clear more sleuthing is ahead.

“We could investigate those cold cases you mentioned, and maybe take on a few cases for other people,” Cam tells Jane.

“Maybe focus on cases where justice didn’t seem likely to be served?” Jane adds.

“Exactly,” Cam responds.

Exactly, indeed. Gilbert’s fans will be looking forward to whatever comes their way.  PS

Anne Blythe has been a reporter in North Carolina for more than three decades covering city halls, higher education, the courts, crime, hurricanes, ice storms, droughts, floods, college sports, health care and many wonderful characters who make this state such an interesting place.

Omnivorous Reader

Omnivorous Reader

Portrait of a Rock Icon

The good, the bad and the ugly

By Stephen E. Smith

When organizing the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, the promoter phoned Chuck Berry to invite him to perform, explaining that the acts were donating their fees to charity. Berry replied, “Chuck Berry has only one charity and that’s Chuck Berry.” End of discussion.

That was Chuck Berry at his most generous, and readers of RJ Smith’s Chuck Berry: An American Life will likely be taken aback by the unsavory details of the life of the man who gave us “Maybellene,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Back in the U.S.A.,” “Reelin’ and Rockin’,” “School Days,” “You Never Can Tell” and “Johnny B. Goode,” rock ’n’ roll classics that pop culture will not willingly let die.

Smith’s biography has been widely lauded in print, online and over the airways, and his study of Berry’s life is as close to a complete examination available to the public. Court records offer even more objectionable details. This much is certain: The more you read about Chuck Berry’s lifestyle, the less likely you are to ever listen to “Maybellene” with a sense of nostalgia.

Berry grew up in a solid middle-class St. Louis family. He wasn’t a blues guy who spent his youth picking cotton and banging on a catalog guitar. He did, however, suffer discrimination early in his life, and Smith devotes the opening chapters of the biography detailing the effects of Jim Crow on Berry’s formative years.

Berry’s trouble began when he was convicted of armed robbery as a teenager and spent almost three years in juvenile detention. When he was released, he drifted into music, became an early master of the new electric guitar, and created an original sound by combining country music with boogie-woogie.

We can argue about who invented the concept of “rock star,” but certainly Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis could lay claim to the term. Berry’s shtick was to sing with impeccable diction while blasting glib rapid-fire lyrics that teenagers could instantly comprehend and dance to. This straightforward blueprint for early rock ’n’ roll attracted Black audiences in the early ’50s. By the mid-’50s Berry’s fanbase was integrated. In the 1960s, he was playing to almost entirely white crowds, at which point his performance was simply called “rock.”

The bulk of Smith’s biography is taken up with the upsetting stories that accompany Berry’s hundreds of performances. His business plan was straightforward. Berry would sign a contract with a promoter who was responsible for supplying the backup band and amplification equipment. He’d arrive in a Cadillac, also supplied by the promoter, minutes before he was to take the stage. There’d be no rehearsal, no interaction with the band, and he’d demand payment in cash before performing. Berry would count the moola, play for the designated amount of time, duckwalk for the audience’s edification, and bang out the hits for which he was best known. Then he’d exit the stage. If there was an encore, he’d demand additional cash. When the concert was over, he’d pack up his guitar and make a clean getaway.

Generally, the audience loved it, dancing, cheering and having a fine time. Berry made money, the promoter usually made money, and the audience left satisfied. The late Rick Nelson summed it up best in his hit “Garden Party”: “Someone opened the closet door and out stepped Johnny B. Good,/playing guitar like ringing a bell, and looking like he should.” Ray Kroc would have been proud — Berry cooked up musical cheeseburgers, each one a tasty clone of its predecessor. Consistency was the key.

All of which was fine and dandy with American audiences. But there was one overawing problem: Chuck Berry. He was irascible, mercurial, essentially unknowable, and had an affinity for trouble. After serving his time in juvie and achieving fame as a rock ’n’ roller, he began traveling the county with a 14-year-old Native American girl he claimed was his assistant. The cops weren’t buying it and nailed Berry for violating the Mann Act — transporting an underage female across state lines for immoral purposes. He spent two more years in prison. Then the IRS began tracking the cash Berry received for his performances and nailed him for income tax evasion, and late in his career he was busted for installing covert cameras in the restrooms of a restaurant he owned, an act of voyeurism that gave rise to an investigation that uncovered a trove of pornographic material in which Chuck Berry was the star. 

As Berry’s antisocial behavior was becoming common knowledge, he was being roundly honored by the American public. On Whittier Street in St. Louis, the National Register of Historic Places listed his home as a monument, and after his release from prison for violating the Mann Act, NASA blasted gold-plated recordings of Berry’s “Johnny B. Good” into interstellar space aboard Voyagers 1 and 2. (Voyager 1 is now 14.1 billion miles from Earth, a far distance from the prison cells Berry occupied in the ’60s and ’70s.) His IRS indictment was greeted with a universal shrug, and his voyeurism conviction was likewise ignored by the press. Chuck Berry went right on performing and raking in the big bucks, playing out the string until the bitter end.

Smith has included all the facts: the good, of which there’s little enough; the bad; and the ugly, of which there’s plenty. Two questions remain. First, who was Chuck Berry? Did anyone truly know the man? Berry explained his sense of self in an interview: “This is a materialistic, physical world. And you can’t really KNOW anybody else, man, because you can’t even really know yourself. And if you can’t know yourself then sure as hell no one else can. Nobody’s been with you as long as you and you still don’t know yourself real well.”

The second question is more complex, encompassing the American penchant for revering individuals, whether rich, talented or charismatic, who are given to violating legal and social norms. Are we willing to accept outrageous behavior from unrepentant religious leaders, corrupt politicians and wayward rock ’n’ roll stars because they’ve somehow made themselves infamous? Apparently so. After all, nothing is quite as American as hypocrisy. PS

Stephen E. Smith’s latest book, Beguiled by the Frailties of Those Who Precede Us, is available from Kelsay Books, Amazon and Local bookstores.