Man, it’s been a really long time since I’ve had a book hangover, I forgot what it was like. I also forgot that you can usually tell when it’s about to happen. Towards the end of the book–which you have finished at all costs, ignoring sleep and food–you start to feel a little funny, like the boundaries between real life and book life have disappeared. And then afterwards, you’re just done. With books, with stories, with bathing. After I finished it, I ended up starting another rewatch of Legend of Korra so I could shut down my brain for a while. I haven’t started a new audiobook, either, and it’s been really hard for me to concentrate enough to write this review.
This book ruined me is what I’m saying.
The seeds for this book were born when Australian comedian and television personality John Safran (famed for his often racial and politically minded pranks) played a prank on the white supremacist Richard Barrett. He told Barrett he was filming a special about Barrett’s Spirit of America Day, but really he was there to gather DNA, prove that Barrett was less than 100% white American, and then spring it on him in public and on camera. Barrett, a lawyer, went to town on Safran’s production company, who never aired the segment out of fear of extended litigation. Then about a year later, Barrett was brutally murdered in his Mississippi home by a young black man named Vincent McGee. Safran was deeply freaked out that someone he’d known, spoken with, had been killed so horrifically. Because he’d been reading true crime books lately, an because Barrett had been such an infamous man, he got it in his head to go to Jackson, Mississippi and cover the trial, to try his own hand at true crime writing.
Safran admits openly that he expected certain things going into the project, and one of the most intriguing things about the book is the way that all of those expectations fail so spectacularly. The central expectation, of course, and one you probably flashed on at least a little while reading my summary above, is that the crime was racially motivated. A young black man kills a famous white supremacist? The story practically writes itself. Only . . .
“If Vincent killed a white supremacist, fighting racism, he can be the hero in that story. If Vincent killed a gay man for hitting on him, that doesn’t work anymore. I wanted the narrative to be me and the brave McGee family against ‘the system’. I wanted to be hanging with the black activist lawyers, but they’ve cut me off. Worse, I got on smashingly with Jim, the white supremacist.”
Everything that Safran uncovers, every person he talks to, every door slammed in his face, every strange and criminal person he befriends, only serves to turn the story into something unbelievably complicated and unexpected. The more the story unraveled from what I (and Safran) had expected, the more interesting and compelling it got. I don’t want to say more than that because half the fun is watching Safran uncover these truly ridiculous, real-life facts about his subjects. Watching him delve into the weird and somehow wonderful yet horrifying details of small town Mississippi life and how it intersects with the murder.
And of course, there’s Safran himself, whose writing style is more along the lines of David Sedaris in spirit, than say, Truman Capote. He’s a smartass, and he’s completely unafraid of making himself look stupid on behalf of his art. He’s also probably the most transparent true crime writer I’ve ever come across, to the point where he spends a later portion of the book literally addressing Janet Malcolm, an author who famously ripped apart another true crime writer and questioned the veracity of his writing. He treats Janet Malcolm like the angel on his shoulder. WWJMD is his motto. His entire tone is irreverent, mixed with this weird sincerity and genuine quest for the truth, whatever that is. I found myself completely sucked in to it, perhaps because Safran was so very present in the writing. It felt more real.
I highly recommend this book. It wasn’t perfect–the ending was a bit anticlimactic, and I would have appreciated more of a conclusion–but overall it was a really great read. It’s relevant, it’s funny, and it will give you a hangover.