DELICIOUS FOODS, by James Hannaham. Little, Brown and Company, 371 pp., $26.
Fasten your seat belts, readers, because this is one edgy novel, a surreal fable that runs wild through politically charged issues of the African-American past and present. James Hannaham's "Delicious Foods" is narrated by the voice of crack cocaine: a modern Lucifer named Scotty; debonair, ironic, seductive, ready to take your soul.
In the dark story Scotty tells here, drug addiction and racism have combined to create a modern slavery system, complete with a plantation in all its details: slaves picking crops all day; slaves forced to beat one another; slaves singing the blues "as a secret portal to escape." Except this is the 1990s.
Hannaham sets up this bizarre situation in a realistic way -- or as real as anything can be when crack itself is talking. Darlene Hardison's beloved husband, Nathaniel, a civil rights organizer whom she met when the two were undergrads at Grambling State University, is lynched and burned to death in their grocery store in a small town called Ovis, leaving behind Darlene and their six-year-old son, Eddie. "In Louisiana, a Negro could find a igloo faster than justice," Scotty explains, and what Darlene finds instead is Scotty himself. Soon, "Her idea of heaven was that the two of us could kick it together 27-9, like we would say -- that's twenty-seven hours a day, nine days a week -- without nobody judging our relationship."
Increasingly lost, Darlene sends Eddie to stay with her sister in Houston, then moves there herself, but as Scotty dryly points out, "moving to Houston don't never solve nobody problems." In Houston, Darlene becomes a none-too-successful prostitute, then is picked up by a minivan that's taking recruits to a wonderful place called Delicious Foods -- a farm where they can do honest fieldwork and smoke all the crack they want. They say she'll be able to call her son when they get there.
That doesn't happen, of course, and Eddie is left on his own, searching the city for traces of his mother. Meanwhile, Darlene is living in a filthy barracks, picking watermelons and running up her debt to the company, because the longer a person stays, the more they owe. Her affair with the white plantation owner, Sextus Fusilier, only gets her deeper into the quicksand.
How Eddie and his mother reunite, what violent events result, what becomes of Darlene and Scotty's beautiful relationship -- these questions, along with the extraordinary writing, keep you turning the pages of this disturbing allegory until its resolution.