January Read of the Month: “Sailing to Alluvium,” by John Pritchard

John Pritchard

John Pritchard


Reviewed by Michael Pitts

In the third installment to the “Junior Ray Saga,” John Pritchard demonstrates his prowess for celebrating the unique world that is the Mississippi Delta. A delightfully obscene and irreverent burlesque tale, Sailing to Alluvium follows the “diktective” work of the loveable Junior Ray Loveblood and his pal Voyd Mudd. As the story unfolds into a mosaic of voices and tall tales, the reader is confronted with much more than the brash, simple narrator would lead you believe. Properly seasoned with stories of the grotesque and tragicomedy akin to O’Connor and Faulkner, the work also contains a layered system of narration which adds considerable depth to the text.

Following the case of three related homicides, Junior Ray begins a hardboiled quest to expose the perpetrators but soon discovers that there may be an entire network of southern women responsible. Through this narrative of corruption and southern aristocracy, the issue of southern manhood quickly comes into focus. The “Aunty Belles,” a group of influential, affluent members of the planting class, will stop at nothing to protect the reputation of the south and southern manhood. Perceived weaknesses such as insanity and femininity are buried or threatened into submission. Leland Shaw and his ledgers of philosophy and poetry are perceived as the typical products of a weak, insane mind which must not be published due to the damage such information could deal to the reputation of the southern male. Receiving death threats for intending to publish these manuscripts, Brainsong is labeled by his sexual orientation, something seen as a perversion by his predators, and his manhood is itself threatened should such writings be released to the general public. The themes of female domination and the maintenance of the southern male identity continue throughout this new Southern Gothic.

Perhaps one of the greatest attributes of the text is its array of perspectives and personalities. During and following the initial narration by Junior Ray, the work spreads, allowing room for the voices of other characters to develop their own tone and themes. Both McKinney Lake and Owen G. Brainsong II return to contribute footnotes and assist Junior Ray with his latest book, and further notes from the reclusive, paranoid personality Leland Shaw add their poetic, philosophical mantras to this installment. Letters from “Mad” Owens and the personal writings of a former professor surface, juxtaposing their intellectual vantage points with those of the simple, quaint Junior Ray. By incorporating an array of perspectives and interlocutors, Pritchard crafts a exposé on southern identity and the lives of those who venture outside its perceived norms.

It is vital to acknowledge that cases of insanity in this text, specifically related to the southern male, involve strong, undying ties to the past. Miss Attica Rummage, the antagonist and leader of the “Aunty Belles,” avoids the topic of her cousin Lombard who had certain members of his family stuffed and treated so he could sit with them on the porch, symbols of the past frozen in time. When they were buried, he splashed water on their graves, signifying the disappearance of their footprints from the earth. Leland Shaw, who suffered from paranoia and instability following his return from World War II, also views water as a type of closure. He longs for the high water to come and connect him to the past. Junior Ray reminisces that, during his hunt for Shaw, they could never discover how the footprints of the crazed writer appeared to suddenly discontinue without sign or explanation. His mark on this world has also disappeared though the reader is left wondering if it too was caused by water and its connection to the past. The past is never far from the southern perspective, and these fatal characters demonstrate its dominant presence in their lives.

The title of the text comes from the poem “Sailing to Byzantium,” by W.B. Yeats, in which the poet laments the present and longs for an idealized past. Here, Pritchard has proven his ability to flesh out the subconscious of the south, and this work elaborately highlights the many facets and ideologies that form this peculiar regional personality. Moving between narrators, it comments on gender roles, identity, class, race, and geography as each voice contributes another philosophical lens to the narrative. While those who have read the first two installments of this saga may feel more comfortable with the text, it is not necessary to read them before reading this novel, which maintains an independent quality and is recommended for those endeared with the nature of the south and the tradition of the grotesque, Southern Gothic.

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  1. Great review–made me want to read the book.

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