THE JOOK By Gary Phillips
Really Great Books. 222 pp.
Reviewed by Brian Gilmore
Chester Himes is somewhere laughing. The late master of the African-American crime fiction novel is laughing because Los Angeles-based crime fiction writer Gary Phillips, in his fourth and latest novel, The Jook, makes sure that the genre that Himes virtually defined continues to maintain its most important traditions. All of the basic principles that drove Himes's legendary Harlem novels -- honesty, distinctive characters, absurdity and good writing -- are here in Phillips's work. Mostly, this offering is character-driven: Phillips, who established himself over the years with his Ivan Monk books, takes us slowly into the politically incorrect mind and world of an African-American sports superstar, Zelmont Raines.
Zelmont is your typical dysfunctional crime fiction character: He has an uncaring attitude, lives life foolishly, and is a fighter. He's a modern-day materialistic gladiator seeking one last hurrah in the twilight of his career and not caring how he gets it. He has enjoyed the extravagance of life in the National Football League as a wide receiver and is not ready to surrender those perks just because his body is beginning to crumble.
But when Phillips introduces us to him, Zelmont is in a pinch. He is out of the limelight of the NFL and has been playing football in the dead zone of Europe. Much to his chagrin, no one seems to know him anymore ("Time was, people would have been sweating me to sign something cute for their granny," he says to himself). But now he is back in the States trying to collect money from all the bums he once bankrolled in the good old days of big contracts and endorsement deals, and, of course, as Charles Barkley would probably say, Zelmont Raines is not a role model.
Truthfully, he's a sexaholic, crack- and crank-smoking wild man who has been to rehabilitation three times, and is also an accused statutory rapist. The mother of the child he fathered out of wedlock is draining him of all his excess cash; his girlfriend, Davida, an aspiring singer, turns up murdered; and Zelmont is the prime suspect.
Despite all this, Zelmont actually does makes the roster of the new Los Angeles NFL football franchise (the Barons) fair and square even though he is still smoking crack and crank (he still passes all the random drug tests). But then he is thrown out of the league by the commissioner, Julian Weems, because Weems knows that Zelmont Raines is a malcontent who has no business in the NFL. Zelmont just keeps on jooking.
He beats the statutory rape charge by pawning off his Super Bowl championship ring and paying off the woman, her family and his parasitic yet exceptionally sharp lawyer with the proceeds. Of course, by this point Zelmont, with a hip that is threatening to turn to sawdust, and with bills mounting, seems finished. But he isn't done.
In his straightforward prose style, Phillips takes you on a tour with Zelmont into the madness of L.A.'s underworld, where he decides to roll the dice for riches with his buddy, Napoleon Graham, a bisexual club owner and former NFL player who is the life of the party. Zelmont goes along on this journey because his friend Nap, as he is called, promises what he wants most: big money. Along with the freaky female attorney for the Los Angeles Barons, Nap and Zelmont conspire to rip off the team's owner and his psychotic cousin and partner, a pair who are trying to launder millions of dollars in dirty money.
Phillips gives you all the necessary elements: thugs all over the place with automatic weapons, beautiful women who always want to have sex, and dishonesty and deceit on nearly every other page. The product of the complex multilayered plot and Phillips's good writing is a novel that is an absurd yet frank take on the world of the modern superstar athlete.
The Jook is not a condemnation but an examination of some of that world's conventions. And though Phillips's writing is repetitive at times and some scenes seem unnecessary or misplaced, his story is always accessible and full of colorful descriptions and dialogue. It carries you right to the end, where you will find out if superstar wide receiver Zelmont Raines has the moves to survive the madness he has helped to perpetuate. Zelmont, it seems, isn't really sure if he has those moves himself. That's why he just keeps on jooking.
Brian Gilmore is an attorney and writer living in Takoma Park, Md.