December 18, 1998 at 05:00 AM EST

Standing at the Scratch Line

type
Book
Current Status
In Season
author
Guy Johnson
publisher
Random House
Genre
Historical, Fiction
We gave it a B

Roots aside, there have, until now, been relatively few epics published on the African-American experience. In his debut novel, Standing at the Scratch Line, Guy Johnson spins a narrative that spans the first half of this century and moves from the Louisiana bayous to the trenches of France to Harlem in its heyday. The vehicle for the cross-border tale is LeRoi ”King” Tremain, a Southern backwoods boy who is something of a cross between the scourge of God and a secular saint: He kills men the way most people peel oranges, but only (and always) according to his own strict moral code.

Expelled from his family after he murders two white deputies, King joins one of World War I’s black regiments, sharpens his deadly skills in battle, and becomes famous for his utter lack of fear. After being discharged, King opens a nightclub in New York and defies the Mob; later he returns to the South, marries, and fights the Ku Klux Klan in New Orleans. Throw in some voodoo, bootlegging, real estate deals, and Mafia hits, set it against a backdrop of racism and revenge, and you get the idea. As history it’s hackneyed, but as entertainment it’s never less than eminently readable. B

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