Reviewed by Gerald Duff
Acclaimed writer Rod Davis in his new novel provides a mystery, the first in what promises to be a series featuring a part-time writer, TV announcer, private investigator, Vietnam veteran, and world-weary survivor named Jack Prine. He lives in New Orleans, but not in the French Quarter. Instead he prefers a location in what he believes to be a more realistic and honest part of the Big Easy, a section known as Faubourg Marigny, downriver from the Quarter and characterized by having less character than the Vieux Carre. It is on the edge of significance and metaphor, and that’s where Jack Prine has learned he can best endure the life he now leads.
The title of the novel, an unusual geographic reference, gains weight as the narrative progresses, since the true subject matter of Davis’s concern is not simply the murder of a young black man, its reason, its solution, and its playing out of the plot of identifying the guilty and supplying the emotional release the reader experiences from the punishment the miscreants so richly merit and receive. Instead, Davis presents a piercing look into the heart of the geographic and emotional location of his protagonist and his journey from jaundiced estrangement into a renewed connection with the ordinary definition of what it is to be human. In the process, Davis teases the reader into a consideration of what the words South and America mean in the new millennium.
Any novelist who places the action of a narrative in New Orleans seems compelled by the mythic power of that place to feature the city itself as a character in the tale that’s told. The danger for the writer is the temptation to slip into travelogue mode, to lose focus, and to end up in another clichéd recitation of the charms and alarms of the Crescent City. Davis does not make that mistake. He uses the fact and character of New Orleans and the Mississippi Delta where his characters wander and are pursued not as stage dressing but as theme and chorus to the action of his plot. “Bring what you will,” Jack Prine says at one point, “roll-on Big Muddy. You murky end of a big river.”
The South of the title of Davis’s novel is realized and presented as sunshine and subterfuge, surface cordiality and hidden judgment, the deep and lasting joys and sorrows of family, the relishing of the sensual, the consolations of religious belief (whether Christian or vodou), the indwelling violence beneath the surface of human interactions, the beauty and love of the land, the mythic dimensions of the Mississippi River valley, the issues of race, and finally the essence of the region mythically — what seems to be versus what is.
What Rod Davis tackles masterfully in this faux hard-boiled mystery is the capturing in a simple plot of murder, investigation, solution, and deserved punishment of the essential truths of what it is to be born, nurtured, schooled, and acclimated to existence in the American South. The issues he presents in riveting prose edged with darkness and dread are what Faulkner, Welty, O’Connor, Tennessee Williams, and a host of other writers of fiction, major and minor, have addressed. What does it mean to say South? What does it mean to say America.
Jack Prine has no settled answers, but his struggle to understand the nature of where he truly lives provides this powerfully fascinating novel with energy, soul, and a hope that he’ll return in another narrative to treat further what he calls “the hard shadowed streets of the Vieux Carre, the American landfall for the fallen.”