The time has come: time to announce the Winter/Spring 2006 Pretty Fakes Book Club Selection: Jack Butler’s Jujitsu for Christ. [UPDATE: Our discussion has begun! Click here to join in, and be sure to follow the links to further entries in our Jujitsu for Christ book club.]
Now, what do you need to know about Jack Butler before you read this book? Maybe nothing. But here’s some info anyway. Jack Butler was born in Alligator, Mississippi. You Eudora Welty fans out there probably know her short story “Powerhouse,” a story about, among other things, the power of art, of music, of performance, to create a temporary space for radical racial intersubjectivity, for transformation. That story is set in Alligator, Mississippi. Right now that sounds like a coincidence. But after you read Jujitsu for Christ, you will not be thought nutty for thinking some kind of cosmic serendipity is at work. True story of the fall of Lucifer: when Butler was born in Alligator, the archangel Lucifer, who is a Welty aficionado—who do you think was responsible for the myriad temptions faced by perennial Welty foe Carson McCullers?—turned to God and said, “A bit on the nose, don’t you think?” And then God cast him out of heaven, because he knows that some convergences are just too good to resist, and plus because he always liked The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, even if The Member of the Wedding was always a little too Judy Blume for Him. And don’t bother pointing out that Member was written while Judy Blume was still in pigtails, God is outside of time and so our notions of temporality are meaningless to Him.
Anyway: he was the son of a Baptist preacher, and a preacher himself for a short while as well as a fried pie salesman, an actuarial analyst, a college dean, head of the creative writing program at the College of Santa Fe, et cetera et cetera. But his chief calling, obviously, is as a writer, and as a writer who resists easy classification. Butler’s published oeuvre is a diverse and idiosyncratic bundle of genres and styles: two volumes of poetry, a collection of short fiction, four novels (Jujitsu for Christ; Nightshade—a science-fiction novel about vampires on Mars; the sprawling, Pultizer-nominated Living in Little Rock with Miss Little Rock; and Dreamer—a CIA thriller), and a cookbook.
I posted about Jack Butler last summer, when I had just finished reading Living in Little Rock—a delight—and I ruminated some on Jujitsu as well, particularly its tour-de-force evocation of just exactly how it feels to live in Mississippi in the summer. Jujitsu is a tough novel to describe in much detail without giving away many of its pleasures. The protagonist is, or anyway seems to be, Roger Wing, a born-again karate expert from Clinton, Mississippi, who moves to Jackson in 1959 and befriends—or is befriended by—an African American family, the Gandys. The novel chronicles their adventures and misadventures in a Mississippi where the interplay of great joy and awful violence creates a piercing feeback wail capable of driving individuals straight out of their minds with fear, lust, anger, longing, resentment, love. It manages to be hilarious, raucous, brutal, chilling, horrifying, and heartbreaking, often within the space of just a page or two.
This is a novel likely to please equally fans of Lewis Nordan or of Thomas Pynchon. Among the many subjects it ranges across in its 208 pages are comic books (one chapter title: “Captain Mississippi and Bluejay”), race, sex, the problem of history, Mississippi and Mississippi College, barbecue, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, the Klan, Ross Barnett, sex again, the terrible things done by good people, Medgar Evers, heat, heaven, the nature of fiction, James Meredith, laundromats, conservative newspaper pundits, Bible study, martial arts, fullbacks, Mars, creative writing programs, communists, civil rights, and the more-tremendous-than-expected difficulty of trying to tell one’s own story.
Now: where to get it. The trouble is, it’s out of print—this is one of the great crimes of modern publishing, and one I’d rectify if I could. But until then, it’s not too difficult to find a used copy online through the usual sources. I highly recommend the good people at ABE.com—here’s a link to their listings for the book. Or Alibris, here. Or there’s always Amazon marketplace, or, especially for you Mississippians, the local library and used bookstores in your area. If you don’t mind shelling out a few extra bucks, I highly recommend getting the hardback edition, which has a beautiful wraparound cover design.
So, here’s what we’ll do: to give everyone time to get their book and have it shipped to them, why don’t we shoot for, say, March 30th? I’ll post some thoughts and questions, and we can just have at it in the comments section.
If you think you’d be interested in participating in the club, would you be so kind as to post a comment to that effect here, just so I have some idea of who all, if anyone, is game? And look, this isn’t just for Louisianans or Mississippians—most people who are not dead inside will love this book, or at least hate it for interesting reasons.
[UPDATE: Our discussion has begun! Click here to join in!]