A review of Ishmael Reed’s sharp satire The Last Days of Louisiana Red

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Ishmael Reed’s 1974 novel The Last Days of Louisiana Red is a sharp, zany satire of US culture at the end of the twentieth century. The novel, Reed’s fourth, is a sequel of sorts to Mumbo Jumbo (1972), and features that earlier novel’s protagonist, the Neo-HooDoo ghost detective Papa LaBas.

In Mumbo Jumbo, Reed gave us the story of an uptight secret society, the Wallflower Order, and their attempt to root out and eradicate “Jes’ Grew,” a psychic virus that spreads freedom and takes its form in arts like jazz and the jitterbug. The Last Days of Louisiana Red also employs a psychic virus to drive its plot, although this transmission is far deadlier. “Louisiana Red” is a poisonous mental disease that afflicts black people in the Americas, causing them to fall into a neo-slave mentality in which they act like “Crabs in the Barrel…Each crab trying to keep the other from reaching the top.”

The Last Days of Louisiana Red begins with Ed Yellings, “an american negro itinerant who popped into Berkeley during the age of Nat King Cole. People looked around one day and there he was.” Yellings is the West Coast counterpart to New-York-based Papa LeBas, a fellow Worker of Neo-HooDoo who fights against the secret forces of psychic slavery.

Sliding into the mythological motif that ripple through Louisiana Red, Reed writes,

When Osiris entered Egypt, cannibalism was in vogue. He stopped men from eating men. Thousands of years later when Ed Yellings entered Berkeley, there was a plague too, but not as savage. After centuries of learning how to be subtle, the scheming beast that is man had acquired the ability to cover up.

Yellings’ mission is to destroy the psychic cannibalism that afflicts his people. He gets to it, and earns “a reputation for being not only a Worker [of the voodoo arts] but a worker too.” Yellings’ working class bona fides helps solidify his sympathies and his mission:

Since he worked with workers, he gained a knowledge of the workers’ lot. He knew that their lives were bitter. He experienced their surliness, their downtroddenness, their spitefulness and the hatred they had for one another and for their wives and their kids. He saw them repeatedly go against their own best interests as they were swayed and bedazzled by modern subliminal techniques, manipulated by politicians and corporate tycoons, who posed as their friends while sapping their energy. Whose political campaigns amounted to: “Get the Nigger.”

As always, Reed’s diagnosis of late 20th-century American culture seems to belong, unfortunately, just as much to our own time, giving his novels a perhaps-unintended sheen of prescience. Reed’s work points to dystopia, even as his heroes work for freedom and justice. And yet Reed gives equal air time to the forces that oppress freedom and justice, forces that find expression in “Louisiana Red”:

Louisiana Red was the way they related to one another, oppressed one another, maimed and murdered one another., carving one another while above their heads, fifty thousand feet, billionaires few in custom-made jet planes equipped with saunas tennis courts swimming pools discotheques and meeting rooms decorated like a Merv Griffin Show set….

The miserable workers were anti-negro, anti-chicano, anti-puerto rican, anti-asian, anti-native american, had forgotten their guild oaths, disrespected craftsmanship; produced badly made cars and appliances and were stimulated by gangster-controlled entertainment; turned out worms in the tuna fish, spiders in the soup, inflamatory toys, tumorous chickens, d.d.t. in fish and the brand new condominium built on quicksand.

As a means to fight the culture of erosion, decay, and entropy, Yellings founds the Solid Gumbo Works. Here, he manufactures a gumbo—a spell, really—to combat “Louisiana Red.” In the process he manages to cure cancer, which pisses off a lot of big corporations, and pretty soon Yellings is murdered. Papa LeBas is sent in from New York to solve the case.

Papa LeBas runs into trouble pretty quickly, mostly by way of Yellings’ adult children: Wolf, Street, Sister, and the provocative and gifted Minnie, who leads a group of militants called the Moochers. Each of the children seem to embody an allegorical parallel to some aspect of the American counterculture of the late sixties and seventies, allowing Reed to mash up genres and skewer ideologies. There are a lot flavors in this gumbo: voodoo lore and California history bubble in the same pot as riffs on astrology and Cab Calloway’s hit “Minnie the Moocher.” Reed frequently compares and contrasts East with West, New York with California, underscoring the latter’s anxieties of influence about being the New World of the New World. Throughout the novel, we get routines on Amos & Andy, slapstick pastiches straight out of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat comix, hysterical nods to Kafka. Reed plays off early blaxploitation films like Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and Superfly (not to mention Putney Swope), and synthesizes these tropes with kung fu imagery and neo-Nazi nostalgia garb. He turns Aunt Jemima into a loa at one point.

Reed’s prose ping-pongs between genres, skittering from pulp fiction noir to surrealist frenzies, from bizarre sex to raucous action, from political essaying to postmodernist mythologizing. Through these stylistic shifts, Reed satirizes a host of ideologies that feed into “Louisiana Red.” Aspects of the Berkeley youth movement, radical feminism, free love, and intellectual hucksterism all get skewered, but through an allegorical lens—Reed dares us, often explicitly (by way of a character named Chorus) to read Louisiana Red as an allegorical retelling of Sophocles’ Antigone.

This retelling is both tragic and comic though, premodern and postmodern, a carnival of varied voices. The chapters are short, the sentences sting, and the plot shuttles along, pivoting from episode to episode with manic picaresque glee. Reed’s narrator is always way out there in front of both the reader and the novel’s characters, hollering at us to keep up.

Ultimately, The Last Days of Louisiana Red is a bit of a shaggy dog. It’s not that it doesn’t have a climax—it does, it has lots of climaxes, some quite literal. And it’s not that the novel doesn’t have a point—it very much does. Rather, it’s that Reed employs his detective story as a frame for the larger argument he wants to make about American culture. Sure, Papa LaBas gets to the bottom of Yellings’ murder, but that’s not ultimately what the narrative is about.

When we get to the final chapter, we find LaBas, sitting alone “on a plain box” in the empty offices of the Solid Gumbo Works reflecting on the case in a way that, in short, sums up what The Last Days of Louisiana Red is about:

He thought of the eaters and the eaten of this parable on Gumbo…all ‘oppressed people’ who often, like Tod Browning ‘Freaks,’ have their own boot on their own neck. They exist to give the LaBases, Wolfs and Sisters of these groups the business, so as to prevent them from taking care of Business, Occupation, Work. They are the moochers who cooperate with their ‘oppression,’ for they have the mentality of the prey who thinks his destruction at the fangs of the killer is the natural order of things and colludes with his own death. The Workers exist to tell the ‘prey’ that they were meant to bring down killers three times their size, using the old morality as their guide: Voodoo, Confucianism, the ancient Egyptian inner duties, using the technique of camouflage, independent camouflages like the leopard shark, ruler of the seas for five million years. Doc John, ‘the black Cagliostro,’ rises again over the American scene. The Workers conjure and command the spirit of Doc John to walk the land.

So here, near the end of The Last Days of Louisiana Red, Papa LeBas—and Ishmael Reed, of course—conjures up the spirit of Doctor John, the voodoo healer who escaped slavery and brought knowledge of the hoodoo arts to his people. There’s a promise of hope and optimism here at the novel’s end, despite its many bitter flavors. But the passage cited above is not the final moments of Louisiana Red—no, the novel, ends, despite what I wrote about its being a shaggy dog story, with a marvelous punchline.

Ishmael Reed remains an underappreciated novelist whose early work seems as vital as ever. The Last Days of Louisiana Red is probably not the best starting place for him, but it’s a great novel to read right after Mumbo Jumbo, which is a great starting place to read Reed. In any case: Read Reed. Highly recommended.

Reading/Have Read/Should Write About

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From top to bottom:

Mumbo Jumbo, Ishmael Reed

Last summer, I read Alasdair Gray’s novel Lanark and never mustered a review (Florida heat; Fourth of July fireworks; booze; other excuses). I’ve thought about Lanark all the time though. I’m afraid Mumbo Jumbo is gonna fall in the same slot as Lanark—too much to handle in one read. I need to go back and reread Mumbo Jumbo—just fantastic stuff—conspiracy theories, hoodoo, music, art theft—I owe it more than I seem to be able to register here.

Fiction and the Figures of Life, William H. Gass

So I read a handful of essays in Gass’s earliest essay collection interspersed with Infinite Jest, and I actually did write a bit about one of them here, in conjunction with IJ. Perfect sentences. (Gass’s sentences. Not mine). I wisely shelved the thing (Gass’s “review” of a Donald Barthelme collection almost paralyzed me), leaving more pieces to return to later.

The Wallcreeper, Nell Zink

I started Zink’s first novel The Wallcreeper this afternoon and only put it down when I had to go pick my kids up from day camp. Then I picked it up again. I just put it down again, at a break, of sorts, on page 77, to write this. Every sentence makes me want to read the next sentence (“I felt almost nostalgic toward socially acceptable horrors with larger meanings related to reproduction,” our narrator quips; a bit later: “My life was like falling off a log comfortably located somewhere light-years above the earth”). It’s about this young married couple living in Bern, Switzerland—also sex, birdwatching, music, etc. I was kinda worried that any novel I picked up after Infinite Jest (see below) might suffer, but nah. The Wallcreeper is fantastic so far.

Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace

Okay, so I mustered a few riffs on rereading Infinite Jest, including a thing about the first 299 pages and a thing for first-time readers—but I finished the novel yesterday, and this is how I felt:

Twitter was the easiest way to try to bottle the feeling of finishing the novel, which is a feeling that I wanted to bottle because didn’t record the feeling of finishing IJ the first time, back in 2001. But I remember finishing it, very, very late at night/early in the morning, and going back through it, rereading that first chapter, trying to figure out What Happened. So what I mean is I felt enthusiasm and energy—it was the opposite of the reread, which was deflationary, I suppose—richer and sadder. And I hate to write this, but it’s impossible not to reread Infinite Jest through the lens of Wallace’s suicide. Just too many suicides in the novel…and then this late passage, from Hal’s narration (elisions and emphasis mine):

…the old specimen’s horrified face as the boy sobs into the chartreuse satin and shrieks ‘Murderer! Murderer!’ over and over, so that almost a third of Accomplice!’s total length is devoted to the racked repetition of this word — way, way longer than is needed for the audience to absorb the twist and all its possible implications and meanings. This was just the sort of issue Mario and I argued about. As I see it, even though the cartridge’s end has both characters emoting out of every pore, Accomplice!’sessential project remains abstract and self-reflexive; we end up feeling and thinking not about the characters but about the cartridge itself. By the time the final repetitive image darkens to a silhouette and the credits roll against it and the old man’s face stops spasming in horror and the boy shuts up, the cartridge’s real tension becomes the question: Did Himself subject us to 500 seconds of the repeated cry ‘Murderer!’ for some reason, i.e. is the puzzlement and then boredom and then impatience and then excruciation and then near-rage aroused in the film’s audience by the static repetitive final 1⁄3 of the film aroused for some theoretical-aesthetic end, or is Himself simply an amazingly shitty editor of his own stuff?

It was only after Himself’s death that critics and theorists started to treat this question as potentially important. A woman at U. Cal–Irvine had earned tenure with an essay arguing that the reason-versus-no-reason debate about what was unentertaining in Himself’s work illuminated the central conundra of millennial après-garde film, most of which, in the teleputer age of home-only entertainment, involved the question why so much aesthetically ambitious film was so boring and why so much shitty reductive commercial entertainment was so much fun. The essay was turgid to the point of being unreadable, besides using reference as a verb and pluralizing conundrum as conundra.

From my horizontal position on the bedroom floor…

There’s hero Hal horizontal, psychic parallel to Don Gately, the hero of stasis, to borrow Hal’s own term…

I’ll try to muster more.

Cess, Gordon Lish

AKA Gordon Lish does whatever the fuck he wants. I read this in one alarmed sitting, and I’m not sure if I read it “correctly,” whatever that means.

The Spectators,Victor Hussenot

Another beautiful book from Nobrow—not a graphic novel, but something closer to a colorful illustrated tone poem, a meditation, a feeling. Excellent review at Loser City, which I made the mistake of reading before I composed my own.

Faust was an actual person (From Ishmael Reed’s novel Mumbo Jumbo)

…Faust was an actual person. Somewhere between 1510 and 1540 this “wandering conjurer and medical quack” made his travels about the southwest German Empire, telling people his knowledge of “secret things.” I always puzzled over why such a legend was so basic to the Western mind; but I’ve thought about it and now I think I know the answer. Can’t you imagine this man traveling about with his bad herbs, love philters, physicks and potions, charms, overcharging the peasants but dazzling them with his badly constructed Greek and sometimes labeling his “wonder cures” with gibberish titles like “Polyunsaturated 99½% pure.” Hocus-pocus. He makes a living and can always get a free night’s lodging at an inn with his ability to prescribe cures and tell fortunes, that is, predict the future. You see he travels about the Empire and is able to serve as a kind of national radio for people in the locales. Well 1 day while he is leeching people, cutting hair or raising the dead who only have diseases which give the manifestations of death, something really works. He knows that he’s a bokor adept at card tricks, but something really works. He tries it again and it works. He continues to repeat this performance and each time it works. The peasants begin to look upon him as a supernatural being and he encourages the tales about him, that he heals the sick and performs marvels. He becomes wealthy with his ability to do The Work. Royalty visits him. He is a counselor to the king. He lives in a castle. Peasants whisper, a Black man, a very bearded devil himself visits him. That strange coach they saw, the 1 with the eyes as decorations drawn to his castle by wild-looking black horses. They say that he has made a pact with the devil because he invites the Africans who work in various cities throughout the Empire to his castle. There were 1000s in Europe at the time: blackamoors who worked as butlers, coachmen, footmen, pint-sized page boys; and conjurors whom only the depraved consulted. The villagers hear “Arabian” music, drums coming from the place but as soon as the series of meetings begin it all comes to a halt. Rumors circulate that Faust is dead. The village whispers that the Black men have collected. That is the nagging notion of Western man. China had rocketry, Africa iron furnaces, but he didn’t know when to stop with his newly found Work. That’s the basic wound. He will create fancy systems 13 letters long to convince himself he doesn’t have this wound. What is the wound? Someone will even call it guilt. But guilt implies a conscience. Is Faust capable of charity? No it isn’t guilt but the knowledge in his heart that he is a bokor. A charlatan who has sent 1000000s to the churchyard with his charlatan panaceas. Western man doesn’t know the difference between a houngan and a bokor. He once knew this difference but the knowledge was lost when the Atonists crushed the opposition. When they converted a Roman emperor and began rampaging and book-burning. His sorcery, white magic, his bokorism will improve. Soon he will be able to annihilate 1000000s by pushing a button. I do not believe that a Yellow or Black hand will push this button but a robot-like descendant of Faust the quack will. The dreaded bokor, a humbug who doesn’t know when to stop. 

From Ishmael Reed’s novel Mumbo Jumbo.

Ishmael Reed . . . and more Pynchon (Books acquired, 5.22.2015)

So I finished my second full reading of Gravity’s Rainbow today. And then I read the last section three more times. And my brain feels fried. I was thinking about rereading V. after this, but I think a break will do nicely. So I picked up Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo on Pynchon’s recommendation (“check out Ishmael Reed,” the narrator tells us on page 588 of Gravity’s Rainbow). A stroll through the lit crit section led to my spying (okay, looking for and finding) the 20th Century Views collection on Pynchon. So we’ll see how that reads.