BookPage Fiction Top Pick, March 2015
It is almost impossible to choose the most memorable thing about James Hannaham’s powerful and daring second novel, Delicious Foods (a title suggestive of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”). It might be that one of its narrators is crack cocaine, or that one of its main characters loses his hands. It might be the evocative African-American slang and dialect. Or it might be the way the novel can be read as an extended metaphor for the situation of blacks in America.
Darlene is a young and talented black woman on her way to a comfortable middle-class existence when her husband Nat disappears in Louisiana. No thinking person will be surprised when the investigation into his death proves feeble. This injustice leads the devastated Darlene down the road of addiction, ultimately to the point of abandoning her 11-year-old son, Eddie. Darlene ends up on the “Delicious Foods” farm, where the payment is partially in crack, harvesting, of all things, watermelons. The farm resembles a plantation or prison, its owners sadistic and criminal, and Darlene struggles to break her addiction and reunite with Eddie.
Delicious Foods does suffer occasionally from a kind of MFA-itis, in which the subject matter takes a backseat to showcase the writing. Hannaham’s frequent references to astronomical phenomena suggest that all human suffering is nugatory in the cosmic scale, allowing for less opportunity to lament or even celebrate his characters. These flaws are, however, far outweighed by its virtues. Delicious Foods is fiercely imaginative and passionate. There are echoes here of Ralph Ellison and Zora Neale Hurston, even at times of Zola or Kafka. The investigation of Nat’s disappearance is not the only instance of racism in law enforcement; in that respect, the novel is timely, even prophetic. Few novels leap off the page as this one does. Delicious Foods is a cri de coeur from a very talented and engaging writer.