I barely caught my breath from reading T. Geronimo Johnson’s “Welcome to Braggsville” before I plunged into James Hannaham’s “Delicious Foods,” another sensational new novel about the tenacity of racism and its bizarre permutations. These two African American men — both in their mid-40s, both on their second novel — bounce off the page with the sharpest, wittiest, most unsettling cultural criticism I’ve read in years.

Johnson, whose novel I reviewed last month, is the master ironist, with an acrobatic style that will give you vertigo. But Hannaham, a former editor at Salon, is an even more propulsive storyteller. In the opening lines of “Delicious Foods,” you hear an author determined to make you put down your iPhone, shut up and listen:

“After escaping from the farm, Eddie drove through the night. Sometimes he thought he could feel his phantom fingers brushing against his thighs, but above the wrists he now had nothing. Dark stains covered the terry cloth wrapped around the ends of his wrists.”

Shocking, macabre and surely not possible, right? — the whole story speeds through the dark like this. Hannaham repeatedly thrusts us into ghastly situations, only to circle back later with explanations when we’re agitated into a fit of curiosity. We won’t put our hands on what happened to Eddie for hundreds of pages, but the tale leading up to his bloody night on the road never takes its foot off the gas.

This is, for all its weirdness, an archetypal tale of American struggle. Hannaham immediately draws us back to the story of Eddie’s parents, Nat and Darlene, bright, ambitious folks trying to grow their lives in the toxic soil of Louisiana. His father starts a grocery store “in the wrongest part of a town made of wrong parts.” In his spare time, he speaks out against David Duke and his shadow Klansmen, and he works hard to register discouraged neighbors to vote. He feels as though he’s helping people take “the first step toward shedding their perpetual despair,” but he fails to realize that he’s in a “chess game he could never win, considering how many moves ahead his opponents were already thinking.”

“Delicious Foods” by James Hannaham. (Little, Brown)

In swift, startling scenes, Hannaham makes visible the ornate prison of racism that constricts the spirits of ordinary people and crushes the spirits of extraordinary ones. “In Louisiana,” he writes, “a Negro could find a igloo faster than justice.” There are violent goons in these pages, of course, but the larger challenge, so strikingly depicted, is the climate of justified fear and a legal system that shows little interest in crimes against blacks. One of those crimes finally overwhelms Darlene’s determined positive thinking and prods her, then shoves her, into addiction and prostitution.

Compelling as this tragedy is, the novel warps into something more surreal when Eddie’s mother gets lured into working as a fruit and vegetable picker at a farm called Delicious Foods. If not for a few stray references to cars, phones and computers, this hellhole would seem rooted in the antebellum South. These farmworkers — inmates, essentially — don’t know what county or even what state they’re in. They’re boarded in a windowless room filled with chickens and rats. They’re threatened and beaten into submission, futilely trying to earn more than they’re being charged each day for food and crack. Workers who suffer broken bones use sticks as splints. Workers who run away — or misbehave — get eaten by alligators. This can’t be slavery, they keep telling each other as they sink further into debt, because slaves didn’t get paid.

The strangeness of this sadistic place, its sense of being out of time and out of all moral order, is reminiscent of Edward P. Jones’s “The Known World.” The owners of Delicious Foods, a grotesque and sickly white couple up at the big house, hover like a pair of ghosts from the mid-19th century. But Hannaham is writing about labor crimes that persist, that make possible the luscious heaps of glowing peaches at our neighborhood grocery store, where we proudly recycle a bag to save the environment. “Sometime Darlene took off one of her gloves and put her fingers up on the sticky watermelon skins,” Hannaham writes in the rich dialect that he shifts in and out of. “She deliberately leaving fingerprints, hoping somebody gonna dust that damn melon for evidence and let her son know where she at.”

But, of course, that’s absurd: We couldn’t care less who picks our fruit. “Folks from America and Canada and even farther be dropping them Sugar Babies and Golden Crowns on they Italian marble counters; blond children be biting down on that juicy red flesh, letting the sweetness ooze and dribble over they tongue and out the corner of they mouth.”

And yet this isn’t “The Jungle” for modern agricultural workers; there’s nothing polemic about “Delicious Foods” and its sly peek at a backwater farm without unions or labor laws. Hannaham is interested, instead, in the pathology of despair that festers in a racist culture. Darlene doesn’t blame white thugs for their violence because that’s simply what white thugs do, the same way lions hunt gazelles. Infected with the delirium of positive thinking, she can’t free herself from the misimpression that she’s to blame for her own precipitous descent — a fallacy reinforced by America’s mythology of self-reliance.

I’ve held off on the best part, though, because I’m nervous it’ll strike you as gimmicky or repellently experimental. But the narcotic high from this novel comes from alternating chapters narrated in the disembodied voice of crack cocaine itself. In this fantastically creative performance, it’s tempting to see the influence of Hannaham’s work with the experimental theater group Elevator Repair Service, which he co-founded in New York. Sassy and funny, infinitely patient and tenacious, Scotty — as crack refers to itself — is Darlene’s potty-mouth best friend. “Not to be egotistical or nothing,” Scotty vamps, “but I am irresistible.”

Crack loyally stands by Darlene and comforts her when no one else will. “Judging folks ain’t my bag,” Scotty says magnanimously. Hannaham has captured the saucy attitude of a cheap, seductive drug that encourages even as it enervates, always winding its victims up for another hit, insisting they’ll never be free, don’t even want to be free.

There is freedom, though, hovering at the conclusion of this insightful and ultimately tender novel. It’s not easily won or guaranteed to stick around, but Hannaham allows that it’s possible, despite the grueling ordeal he draws these characters — and us — through. “Delicious Foods” may be the most sarcastic title of the year, but you will devour this book.

Ron Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter: @RonCharles.


By James Hannaham

Little, Brown. 367 pp. $26