Delicious Foods by James Hannaham
Published by Back Bay Books
Publication date: January 19th 2016
Genres: Book Clubs, Fiction, Contemporary, Literary
Everybody black knows how to react to a tragedy. Just bring out a wheelbarrow full of the Same Old Anger, dump it all over the Usual Frustration, and water it with Somebody Oughtas…Then quietly set some globs of Genuine Awe in a circle around the mixture, but don’t call too much attention to that. Mention the Holy Spirit whenever possible.
If I were handing out book awards, James Hannaham would win the following for his novel, Delicious Foods: most misleading title, most shocking beginning, and best use of an inanimate narrator. Why you ask? I won’t be coy. I thought this book would be about…delicious foods. You know, baked goods, maybe set in a restaurant? No. Delicious Foods is the name of a produce company and they are anything but delicious. More on that later. As for the novel’s beginning, I’d really love to tell you because it is made plain in the first paragraph, but I kind of feel like you need to read it for yourself. I’ll put it this way—protagonist Eddie is seventeen and driving a stolen car from Louisiana to Minnesota in desperate circumstances. That’s all I can give you. As for the inanimate narrator? Well, that would be Scotty, the voice of the crack cocaine that Eddie’s mother, Darlene, hears in her head every minute of every day.
If none of that is enough to pique your interest, then you probably need to take up another hobby away from reading. In Delicious Foods Hannaham has written one of the most creative novels I’ve read in a very long time. Beyond the reasons above, we are not only introduced to Eddie in the prologue, but we follow his life until its end. Only then, in the first chapter, do we move backwards to find out how he got where he did and why. The quickest answer is Darlene, a good woman and loving wife until her husband is murdered when Eddie is just six-years-old. After that, she finds Scotty, who becomes her new best friend
I smiled at Darlene inside her brain. I knew what she gon do. Not to be egotistical or nothing, but I am irresistible.
Not too surprisingly Scotty leads her to make really bad decisions, including the one at the core of Delicious Foods. One night, out on the street, she agrees to work for a produce company that promises high wages, benefits, and luxury living quarters. That she and the men signed up with her are all either drunk or high means that their understanding of what is happening to them is clouded. After being driven in a van for hours, they are unceremoniously dumped into a concrete barracks with more addled people and padlocked in. From there, the situation devolves into indentured servitude. Everyone is charged for the trip to the farm, all of their basic daily needs, and most problematically, their drugs. Within a week, Darlene has no more chance of giving Eddie a better life than she does of getting clean. The farm is isolated, the guards brutal and the workers are kept completely cut off from the outside world. What she doesn’t know is how enterprising her son is. Left on his own, he decides to find her, despite being only eleven.
There is a grit to Delicious Foods that goes far beyond the plight of the farm’s workers—although Hannaham describes that life so realistically I’m feeling guilty about the produce I buy. It’s found in both Eddie and Darlene. Knowing that Eddie survives his childhood does not lessen the impact of what those years meant. Nor is Darlene as a crack whore any easier to parse. Hannaham makes no excuses, but the contrast of a young woman of light and love stripped of all hope by racism chafes the mind.
Hannaham accomplishes all this while rendering the patterns and rhythm of street speak in such perfection the characters are audible on the page. This is especially true of the sly Scotty, whose presence in the novel is the twisted counterpoint to the realities of life on the farm. When crack cocaine is hurt by a user’s defection and you laugh, satire as high art is in the house. Delicious Foods is a story that is distinctly unpalatable for its characters, but Hannaham’s diamond bright observations on human nature are delectable.