Reviewed by Andy Johnson
“As I understand it, Big Daddy was born that way, unable to help himself when he acted ugly and equally unable to recognize right from wrong.” The opening line of The Bequest of Big Daddy exalts Horatio Janson, a.k.a. Ratio, a.k.a. Gage Johnson, a.k.a. Big Daddy, as the troubled but ultimately blameless founder of a proud Southern family. The line also describes this ugly mess of a novel. Jo-Ann Costa crafts an impossibly complicated plotline with a sociopathic protagonist, then forgoes creativity in favor of appropriation.
Great-granddaughter Jo-Dee Janson narrates the opening chapter (more prologue), when she remembers attending the 1953 funeral of the family patriarch. Some family members remember him fondly, others less so.
The next chapter moves to 1843, when Clayton “Clay Man” Janson arrives at the Satterly Plantation to become a companion for a young boy. Clay Man falls for the boy’s vain and manipulative sister Mina. Costa shifts to an anonymous third person narrator here, gaining access to the thoughts of Clay Man and later Ratio.
The third chapter occupies nearly 80 pages. By 1862, Mina marries Clay Man and gives birth to Horatio Janson, nicknamed Ratio. Sherman’s troops march through northern Georgia. Mina and Ratio seek safety in Alabama. With Clay Man lost to the “War of Northern Aggression,” fatherless Ratio wanders into a traveling circus while Mina seduces Senator Tidwell. After receiving a good luck amulet from fortune teller, a freak show “morphadite” named Harry Celeste molests Ratio. Ratio vows to kill Harry Celeste.
This episode gives us more insight into the narrator and author than the characters. Costa apparently believes the old canard of transgenderism equaling pedophilia. She also has problems sorting out pronouns, until after the molestation, when Harry Celeste is referred to as exclusively male.
As the chapter continues, Tidwell gives Ratio a job at the Senator’s lumber mill. Ratio learns the business, including the convict lease system. Ratio trades sex for candy with sharecropper’s daughter Kitzie. Meanwhile, a convict named Bent leads a work song in the fields. Fiona Tidwell, the Senator’s mentally challenged daughter, admires a new tree. Ratio goes for a midnight walk, naked. Fiona spots Ratio and they awkwardly explore their sexuality. Senator Tidwell catches them, beats Ratio senseless, and charges him with rape. With help from Kitzie, Ratio and Bent bribe a guard and escape. Bent invites Ratio to accompany him to safety in the swamps of south Florida, but Ratio decides to head north. He also decides to kill Tidwell.
Costa undercuts her coming-of-age tale with Ratio’s continuing lack of emotional progress. She mingles stereotypes of African American women (faithful mammies, uppity maids, hypersexual girls) with her appropriation of African American history and African American literary idioms. The rape accusation narrative, a near-lynching, bondage, and escape by the North Star become shackled in service to Ratio Janson, the son of slaveholders and a beneficiary of the Southern power structure. The only difference is that Ratio actually does rape Fiona: she is incapable of giving consent. I’m not saying that white authors cannot or should not employ African American traditions in their work. Many have succeeded with these techniques: William Faulkner and Johnny Cash come to mind. Jo-Ann Costa fails, badly.
As we get to the end of the third chapter, Mina finds out that Tidwell has beaten Ratio and left him to die in jail. Speeding to the mill, Mina learns of the jailbreak. Mina returns home. Ratio wanders into northern Georgia and meets the faithful Mammy Twolah, living near the ruin of the Satterly Plantation. Mammy Twolah directs Ratio to the old homestead, where he discovers Clay Man. Clay Man admits he deserted his regiment and abandoned his family. Ratio realizes he looks nothing like Clay Man or his mother; Clay Man cannot be his real father. Ratio tells Clay Man where to find Mina.
The third chapter spans the years immediately before and after the “War of Northern Aggression.” Just as several characters blame their woes on the war (former slaves demanding wages! Can you imagine?) Costa blames Ratio’s profoundly disturbing acts on these difficult years, on the Senator, on Mina, on Clay Man, on Harry Celeste, on the North, on everything and everyone except Ratio. Yet Ratio benefits from slavery and the Reconstruction South and creates problems for himself and everyone he meets. Costa, it seems, expects the reader to sympathize with the source of conflict, Ratio, instead of his victims.
In Chapter Four, Ratio makes his way to Memphis and finds Bent on the way. To distance themselves from the Senator’s wrath, Ratio renames them Gage Johnson and Cripple Bill. In Chapter Five, Ratio (a.k.a. Gage Johnson) buys a sawmill in Alabama, escaping public scrutiny by having Bent (a.k.a. Cripple Bill) run errands. But he cannot avoid the eyes of Eugenie Raines, the daughter of a local solicitor, who he eventually marries. Mina writes Ratio after seeing his name in a newspaper. Her simple letter infuriates Ratio, who blames his mother for concealing the true identity of his father and failing to rescue him from Tidwell.
Ratio starts an affair with a Fannie Cannon, a farmer’s wife. Her husband catches the pair in bed and beats Ratio to a pulp. Ratio murders Ace Cannon a week later. Convicted of murder, Ratio is sentenced to the Belle Juene Coal Mines. Ratio loses interest in his wife and children and concentrates on revenge and survival. Eugenie dies. Ratio murders a “buck” who took his dinner. Ratio decides to escape by starting a methane explosion as a diversion. The blast kills 196 guards and convicts and flings Ratio into a slag heap. Now unable to escape, he identifies the bodies of the men he killed. Pardoned for his “service,” Ratio returns home.
Costa never explores the potential of a character who feels nothing when committing mass murder or at the death of his wife. If anything, she praises his lack of empathy. Ratio never apologizes for the premeditated murder of Ace Cannon or the “buck,” nor shows remorse for mass murder. After he returns to civilian life, Costa never revisits these events. Unfortunately, readers cannot forget these crimes as easily as Ratio or Costa. (I ran the Hare Psychopathy test on Ratio Janson. This test helps psychiatrists determine the mental state of notorious criminals on a 40 point scale. Murderer and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer scored a 22; Ratio scores in the mid-30’s. With a cape and a funny hat, this character might become a comic book supervillan, or J.R. Ewing.)
After failing to connect with his children, a young woman named Sarah Stretch acts as a live-in surrogate mother. Sarah becomes Ratio’s lover. Ratio rides out to see his dying mother, who reveals that she poisoned Senator Tidwell in revenge, and that Clay Man committed suicide when Mina revealed that Ratio was not his, and that she feels amorously toward her own son. She shows Ratio a picture of his father, but refuses to tell Ratio his real father’s name. Ratio storms out.
Costa presents Mina and most women in The Bequest of Big Daddy as greedy, manipulative, vain, oversexed, critical, and never existing independently of a relationship to a man. Fiona is mentally deficient, sexual, and loyal, begging for Ratio until the end. Kitzie is sexually available and loyal, helping Ratio escape. Ratio discards women throughout his life; Costa discards women throughout the novel. The family ostracizes women who refuse to heap praise on Ratio – even the daughter-in-law who nurses Ratio is chided for “not letting him touch her t*ts.”
In the last chapters, Ratio murders Harry Celeste in front of his young son Charles. Charles runs away and is subsequently killed in a tornado. Ratio hires the Ku Klux Klan of Alabama to steal cars and distribute moonshine. WWII breaks out and Ratio becomes a war profiteer, smuggling gasoline and tires across American borders and selling counterfeit ration cards. A small stroke slows him down. In 1947, he finds a sister of Fiona Tidwell and gets her to recount the sad story of her sister, confined to an asylum until death. Ratio takes great pleasure in shocking Fiona’s sister with his name. However, his body and mind fall into senility and Ratio lives with his eldest son until for the rest of his days.
In the final chapter (which reads more like an epilogue), Jo-Dee finds a photo of Ratio’s father with Mina’s inscription: Shea Bishop. Jo-Dee concludes that her family name is actually Bishop, not Janson. Jo-Dee never mentions her findings to anyone in her family. Jo-Dee locates the old family plantations. She hops a fence and finds a modern day Shea Bishop with “Blackamoor eyes” living on the old plantation. He is descended from enslaved people once owned by the Bishops. After the fall of the Confederacy, they gave their land to the former slaves and left. Then she meets Duncan McIntyre (by appointment), the new owner of the Satterly Plantation. A gracious college professor, McIntyre allows her access to the property and gives her a piece of her ancestral legacy he had unearthed. With this talisman, Jo-Dee feels protected by the ghost of Ratio.
While Jo-Dee seems oddly asexual compared to other women in the novel, she suffers from just as many flaws. After trespassing onto his land, Jo-Dee argues with Shea Bishop about race, shouting, “how about knocking off the angry black man routine! Slavery ended long ago. I can’t help what my ancestors did! I’m not your enemy!” And while slavery did end, white privilege (whiteness as the default racial position and others as…other) thrives in this novel.
For Costa, revealing the truth about the Janson family name is the most compelling event in the novel. This plays into her main theme: the deification of Southern white manhood. No character exists, acts, or even thinks independently from a white male. Ratio abandons his mother not because she wants him sexually, but because she won’t reveal the name of his true father. Fiona dies begging for Ratio. As soon as Bent grows too old to run errands, he vanishes from the novel. When Jo-Dee visits her ancestral lands, both Shea Bishop and McIntrye function as straw men: without a legacy of his own, Shea Bishop cannot claim that slavery has injured him. In fact, he’s benefitted so much that the local townspeople forget to tell Jo-Dee that Bishop is black. McIntyre represents Costa’s ideal Southern man: well-educated, successful, gracious, and free from the weight of the past.
Costa may believe that race and gender issues were not the point of her novel. That’s part of her problem. Costa’s writing never assumes that someone unlike her might read the book. She makes no effort to reach beyond her own tightly-drawn borders. Like Ratio, her wounds are self-inflicted, self-indulgent, and ultimately self-defeating.
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