John Safran is a Jewish Australian prankster-documentarian who delves into racism and tribalism not by prodding its history and the depths of its pathos but by exposing the absurd places it leads people. He works in the vein of Sacha Baron Cohen, with the demeanor of David Sedaris.
In an episode of his Australian TV show "Race Relations," he recounted how a friend's father, after learning of Safran's diverse dating habits in college, lectured him at dinner: "You know if you marry a non-Jew, you're finishing Hitler's work for him." So to "un-brainwash" himself, he finds a blue-eyed, blond-haired Aryan — a shiksa in the words of his disapproving family — and takes her to Amsterdam, where he promptly informs her that he wants to make out with her in Anne Frank's attic. And they do.
It helps to understand Safran's approach when picking up his first book, "God'll Cut You Down: The Tangled Tale of a White Supremacist, a Black Hustler, a Murder, and How I Lost a Year in Mississippi."
On one of Safran's television journeys, he spent a day with a white supremacist in Mississippi named Richard Barrett. The resulting episode never aired because of legal threats from Barrett. But when a year and a half later, in 2010, Safran learns that Barrett was killed, allegedly by a young black man, he decides he has to write a book about it.
Safran embarks with all the usual preconceptions of Mississippi. He assumes the accused — a 22-year-old man named Vincent McGee — was innocent or had a good reason to kill Barrett but will be railroaded by the justice system. Safran sets himself up as the straight man shocked by a cast of bizarre and racist characters. He hopes to become an advocate for McGee — to be the white savior, perhaps not realizing in America how played out that literary trope is.
Preparing for his trip, Safran learns that McGee did yard work for Barrett, then went back to his house to collect his money and use his computer. A fight broke out either over the money or a sexual advance by Barrett, and the old man was stabbed to death, then burned as his house was set on fire.
Mississippi, white supremacist, interracial gay sex, a possible murder. How much more twisted could this story get? Safran is excited.
He knew from "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" to "arrive early and befriend the local yahoos." The problem here is, the locals are not nearly as flamboyant or unforgettable as the ones John Berendt rendered (accurately or not) in Savannah, Ga. No one walked an invisible dog, and most of the people related to the accused don't want much to do with Safran.
He has more luck with Barrett's fellow white supremacists, because they are fractious, talkative and weird. Safran writes: "You should know, white separatists are always kvetching about one another. In fact most white supremacists hate: 1) white liberals, 2) white conservatives, and 3) other white supremacists, making it unclear which whites they have in mind when proclaiming their love of the white race."
But in a further twist, it turns out Barrett lived in a black neighborhood and was loved by his neighbors, who had no idea he was a white nationalist leader. And McGee — well, according to the book, he threatens to have Safran killed if he doesn't send him $2,500. He talks to the author only when Safran apparently sends him hundreds of dollars in pre-paid Wal-Mart cash cards.
Safran has a breezy style that can be entertaining, and there are moments of humor and insight. But he drags the reader along on interminable interviews to find out whether Barrett was gay, whether he liked to have sex with black men, whether he had paid McGee to be one of those partners, and whether he attacked McGee with a knife one night when the younger man didn't feel like cooperating.
Safran is aflutter with the irony that a white supremacist would have sex with black men. But America has seen so many ideological loudmouths brought down by their own worse brand of sin, we expect this sort of thing.
So the only reason to continue as a reader is very meta: Is the author going to pull off this book? He writes openly about his goals for it, white savior and all. He cuts away from one interview scene to describe himself writing about that scene later that day. He mentions not wanting to gain weight before the book tour.
Maybe those who know Safran from Australia will infuse his likable, self-doubting persona into the writing and find all this more appealing. But his television voice doesn't come across on the page.
And the tension, meta and otherwise, sags when McGee pleads guilty to manslaughter, arson and burglary to avoid a possible life term instead of going to trial. The courtroom was going to bring the big denouement, the moment of truth. That's what Safran came for. But he stumbled into the hard reality of journalism: Stories are seldom as tidy as they seem from afar, and they often refuse to fit the paradigm, even in Mississippi.
God'll Cut You Down
The Tangled Tale of a White Supremacist, a Black Hustler, A Murder, and How I Lost a Year in Mississippi
Riverhead: 368 pp., $27.95