Dallas Morning News
20 May 2011
A multifaceted craftsman, Ishmael Reed has been an important American literary artist since the 1960s. As a top-flight postmodern novelist and feisty cultural critic, Reed consistently challenges our status quo sociopolitical arrangements. Recently, his targets have been American news outlets like MSNBC , Fox and CNN, and entertainment producers like Oprah Winfrey , Tyler Perry and Lee Daniels, the filmmakers behind Precious.
Reed’s 10th novel, Juice! , is about Paul “Bear” Blessings, a political cartoonist obsessed with O.J. Simpson’s 1995 murder trial. Calling himself “the last man to believe in O.J.’s innocence,” Blessings recounts his concentrated analysis of the trial, how it disrupted his home life and nearly ruined his career. Though he lambastes the talking heads who stirred O.J.-mania and profited, readers learn early on that Blessings also turned O.J. into a trick, gaining enough to afford residence at the Waldorf-Astoria.
Juice! is strange: the narrative careens from Blessings’ tales about his online buddies in a chat room called the Rhinosphere (after the rhinos roaming Ted Joans’ poems), to stories about his work for KCAK, a Fox-like New York City television station, to the author’s awkward cartoons, interspersed throughout. Meant to illustrate the impetus for Blessings’ work troubles and to heighten the satire, the drawings distract rather than focus the manic fiction.
Through these story lines, Blessings grouses about misrepresentations of black men in the news media, exclaims the wonders of American Indian and Japanese cultural practices, tosses off misogynistic and homophobic bombs, plants verbal land mines beneath sellout black executives and minstrel rappers, and extols Paul Mooney’s comedic genius.
But Reed doesn’t bind these threads together well and, as a novel, Juice! never achieves its hoped-for comedic insight or add productively to Reed’s catalog.
However, behind the exhortations Reed has scripted a series of essayistic riffs: disquisitioning on American journalism and journalists’ attempts to convict Simpson; outlining Americans’ continued cultural fascination with Simpson’s trials and the structures of American socio-legal desire; examining our desire for racialized identities while continually, paradoxically, denying that racist hierarchies and agendas order American life.
In fact, Reed argues deftly, “O.J.” has become a word signifying various meanings: “sharp, legal defense tactics” or “interracial romance;” or, simply, “a rich black man’s strident (mis)use of the legal system in a way once granted to white Americans alone.” Read for its analytical bits, Juice! can be smart and provocative.