James Hannaham wants to kill the “magical Negro.” You know the archetype: He’s the modest black character with a tragic but vague past who uses special powers to help the white hero. He’s Bagger Vance in The Legend of Bagger Vance, or John Coffey from The Green Mile—and he has no place in Hannaham’s unforgettable new novel. Granted, Delicious Foods has plenty of magic in it, and plenty of tragedy. It begins when Eddie, a black teenager who’s just escaped nightmarish conditions working on a farm called Delicious Foods, drives a truck from Louisiana to Minnesota, even though his hands have been cut off. Many chapters are literally narrated by crack cocaine, which calls itself “Scotty” and tells Eddie’s drug-addict mother, Darlene, “Babygirl, surrender to yes!” While high, Darlene hears a blackbird speak in the voice of someone who was murdered by bigots. None of these magical folks want to help the white people who run the farm. But for a long time, no one revolts against them, either.
A powerful allegory about modern-day slavery, Delicious Foods explores the ways that even the most extraordinary black men and women are robbed of the right to control their own lives. After Eddie’s getaway, Hannaham flashes back to the pre–civil rights South, chronicling Darlene’s transformation from a promising college student to a crack-smoking prostitute, before she finally abandons young Eddie to join Delicious. Hannaham satirizes racial stereotypes with dark humor—he plays with voodoo, black vernacular, and the sexual powers of slaves—but he’s serious about investigating the long-term effects of internalized racism, and the despair that prevents people from helping themselves. Hungry and sweating in the heat, Darlene wants nothing more than to eat the watermelons she picks at Delicious, but she refuses “ ’cause it seem racist against herself.” Instead, she nearly starves.
As the book heads toward its horrible conclusion, Hannaham sometimes revels too much in others’ pain, like a Lars von Trier of the American South. But Delicious Foods is a sharp critique of the American belief that you can do anything as long as you work hard. And it will make you think twice about everyone who suffered for the fresh fruit you ate for lunch. B+