Dateline: The Delta 

John Pritchard's mixed messages from the most Southern place on earth.

Junior Ray

By John Pritchard

NewSouth Books, 158 pp., $23.95

"This book is not for the squeamish," warns anthropological philologist Owen G. Brainsong II. "Yet it is essential reading for those who wish to understand the Mississippi Delta, its conflicts of class [i.e., planters vs. white trash] and race [i.e., whites vs. blacks], its angels [e.g., Leland Shaw] and, most certainly, its demons [e.g., Junior Ray Loveblood]."

Brainsong II -- not "junior"; there could be a third? -- is writing to prepare the reader for a story he heard from his mother, who'd herself heard it from the anthropological philologist's uncle, the late Owen Glyndwyr Brainsong, former superintendent of education for Mhoon County, Mississippi (pop.: 20,000, 2,000 of them white; county seat: the town of St. Leo).

The story concerns Mr. Shaw, a shell-shocked World War II vet from a prominent St. Leo family, who, one morning, at the "cracker-dawn," smashed through a "pitcha-window" in the "Rest Wing" of the "new hospital" out on 61. This was in the winter of '58. Shaw made his escape on foot and ended up inside a silo filled with cotton seeds, the silo belonging to Shaw's mother's sister, Helena Ferry, a St. Leo landowner whose brother, "Sticks" Ferry, it was a widely known fact, fathered "Miss High-Yellow" herself, Atlanta Birmingham Jackson, a "Mohammedan" living in Chicago with thoughts of acquiring some land from Miss Ferry for the benefit of "Mr. X." But to get to our story ...

Shaw's in his silo, but nobody knows it. What Mhoon Countians are afraid of is that a "maniac" is on the loose, and for the first three months of 1959, Mr. Loveblood (Junior Ray to anybody who knows him and who doesn't, he being the county's deputy sheriff and all) is on the case, with sidekick Voyd Mudd in on the chase.

Junior Ray's not Delta-born. He's of solid-white hill-country stock (hometown: Clay City, Miss.), and as deputy lawman, he's got his work cut out for him, the work being, in his words, to "shoot the shit out of somebody." Killing for sport is Junior Ray's birthright, as is his way with words -- e.g., "sunavabitch" (sometimes "sumbitch"), "ruint" (for "ruined"), "one nem" (for "one of them"), "Meffis" (for "Memphis"), "hunnerd" (for "hundred"), in addition to "fukkim," "fukher," and "fukkit" (for you know what) along with inventive neologisms such as "in-fukkin-deed" and "psycho-fukkin-logically." As for Junior Ray's superabundant use of the N-word ... let's not go there.

Let's get to the real story here, which is Junior Ray -- in his own words, as recorded by Brainsong -- in comic pursuit of Shaw in all the wrong places: in a black honky-tonk cum whorehouse; in a "Boy Sprouts" camp; in something called a "bar' pit" (which lands Junior Ray practically up to his waist in quicksand, saved by the phantom hand of Shaw); in a crop duster to get the lay of the land; in the presence of a U-2 submarine; in the face of the Fruit of Islam; in the sack with his lady friend in Sledge; and in possession of some notebooks written by Shaw. Question: Are those notebooks one (mad)man's poetic meditations on a mythic time and place (the pre-'60s Delta), or are they, again in the words of Junior Ray, "a pile of crap"? And why's Junior Ray holding onto the notebooks 40 years down the road? What's he doing acting as an aged "ambassiter of goodwill" (translation: parking-lot security guard) for a Tunica casino? Answer: meditating on time and place (the post-'60s Delta) too and sharing in (God, he hates to admit it) some of Shaw's wisdom. "The world's different now," Junior Ray says in a micromoment of honest insight. "Of course, I'm not. I didn't have nothing to change to."

The words are Junior Ray's but the author of them is Memphian John Pritchard, Delta-raised and professor of English at Southwest Tennesse Community College. Junior Ray is his first novel, and Brainsong's right: It is not for the squeamish. It is at the opposite end of politically correct. It is an earful. That Junior Ray Loveblood works his way into our sympathy makes it also something of a miracle. n

John Pritchard will be signing and reading from Junior Ray at Burke's Book Store on Thursday, April 14th, from 5 to 7 p.m.

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