Dalkey Archive Press: 336 pp., $14.95 paper
Nobody renders the aphorism, "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get you," more vividly on the page than Ishmael Reed. From the beginning of his career in the '60s to this allegedly post-racial moment, Reed has written dispatch after furious dispatch from the complex milieu in which black Americans have always lived but which their fellow Americans have never been able to fully recognize. For Reed, this lack of understanding is not only a major political offense, it's a source of personal frustration that has only grown over the years, to the point where instead of penning his memoirs, he is still in the trenches, shooting down the hypocrisy, indifference and disingenuousness that long ago replaced legally sanctioned racism. It has been decades since racial inequality has been regarded as a breathing moral outrage — and now how could it be when we have a black president? — though statistics conclude again and again that it is still very much alive. Believers like Reed have it tough.
So it's no surprise that Reed's new novel, "Juice!," dives back into the fray, but in typically unconventional fashion it focuses not on Obama but on an event that for many Americans already feels many eras removed: the trial of O.J. Simpson for the murders of his former wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman. The book's main point is that the racial tensions that underlie so many discussions about the "trial of the century" 16 years ago are still with us. This surreal tale about a controversial black cartoonist named Paul Blessings (a.k.a. "Bear," a thinly disguised Reed) who obsesses about the daily developments of the trial in 1995 and the guilt/innocence of O.J. is meant not simply to remind us how obsessed we all were back then but also that our obsession with divining the real motives of a high-profile black man never goes away, it just lies dormant until the next actor mounts the stage. (Is President Obama a patriot or a socialist? Cool or volatile? African or American? In other words, is he innocent or guilty?)
In vintage Reed style that he calls "neo-hoodooism," the novel is both absurd and realistic, outrageous and sobering. I found myself laughing out loud at Bear's fevered overthinking about the countless pieces of evidence in the O.J. case, including the Bruno Magli shoeprints and the bloody glove. I was equally struck by the casual but stinging observations about media, criminal justice and American attitudes about race. "[O]ne media expert says it's a shame that a black prosecutor [Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Christopher Darden] can't prosecute a black defendant and black juries are so biased that they can't convict a black criminal," Bear muses, "yet the jails are full of black people, making me wonder who's putting them there." There's a lot more where that came from.
Bear is determined to stand by O.J. no matter what, yet sometimes his self-reflection leads to moments of illuminating self-doubt. More than once he asks himself whether his critics — black and white, liberal and conservative — have a point. At his most discouraged, he confesses to a temptation to give up the racial watchdogging altogether and focus on getting paid and staying comfortable, a reasonable choice given his advancing age. Not accidentally, the story is framed by a health crisis: Bear is newly diagnosed with diabetes, a condition that's all too real (blacks suffer from it disproportionately) and symbolic (consuming too much O.J. minutiae isn't good for body or soul).
In the constant fog of racial anxiety there is some real and affecting sentiment. Watching a broadcast of the memorial service for the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing, Bear is at first unmoved. "Then this sister got up and belted out 'America the Beautiful' and 'God Bless America,'" Reed writes, "and I put my head on the table and wept. Thinking of all those children and the parents holding teddy bears in their arms where the children should be and the blacks and whites comforting each other. Thinking about how untreated racism was destroying the country. Regardless of my cynical and sometimes grotesque cartoons, deep down I was a patriot. Every time I hear the 'Star-Spangled Banner,' that ugly piece of noise, derived from an old Irish drinking song, I get goose pimples. I break out." The critique of American hypocrisy is reflexive for Reed, but Bear shows more than a little tenderness for his native, perpetually misguided country. Such is the emotional and cultural limbo that many black people occupy daily.
But "Juice!" is as much a commentary on media as it is on the American psyche of race — for Reed, the two are inseparable. Bear's world is an increasingly cynical, corporatized journalism landscape that is part modern reality, part farce: a major paper is called the Anglo Saxon Explainer; an ultra-conservative political movement is called the Kettles; a colleague at the TV station where Bear works is Princessa Bimbette; Bear meets his character and alter ego, Koots Badger, face to face in a dream that is yet not a dream. Bear's real nightmare is that he, like black people as a whole, are becoming passé before his eyes; in the public eye O.J. looms large, and Obama looms even larger a generation later, but the media's interest in the welfare of ordinary black folks is trending quickly the other way. "You are no longer a found delight," cartoonist Berkeley Breathed remarks about the inevitable shift of the art form from print to online, where fans must be computer-savvy to find their favorite work. "You are a dedicated delight."
Often it feels like Reed's own obsessions distract him. The prose is sometimes collapsed into too much shorthand analysis, and the dots he wants to connect don't quite do so. At other points he grandstands with monologues that seem randomly assigned to this character or that. But overall I was taken with the book's terseness and lack of frills, its day-by-day journaling of the O.J. phenomenon that is suspenseful even though we all know exactly how the story is going to turn out.
The real suspense is how America, preoccupied in this new century with class, immigration, climate change, war, a declining global status and a fading white majority, is going to treat the still-urgent question of black justice. That trial is still going on.
Aubry Kaplan is a contributing editor to The Times' Opinion pages.