Monday, February 23, 2015

SOIL :: Jamie Kornegay

"The trouble started with compost."  Oh, you don't even KNOW.  Jay Mize first began experimenting with compost in his soil management job with the Farm Service Agency in Madrid, Mississippi.  A young man with a wife and 6-year-old son, Sandy and Jacob, Jay appears to have it all. But laboring under a dark family history and some deep internal fractures, he is beginning to come undone.

Obsessed with his work, Jay reads incessantly about diverse farming techniques from all civilizations. Concluding that poor soil management has lead to the decline of societies throughout time, he begins proselytizing to his farming clients. They grow tired of the "young suburban Moses" and his fanciful rants, and ultimately the Agency requests his resignation.

This only leaves Jay free to act on his fixation with what he believes to be the future of agriculture -- soil-free farming. The Mizes sell their home and bet it all on seventeen acres in rural Madrid along the Tockawah river, where Jay begins to build his agricultural Taj Majal, a compound where he plans to experiment with his "growing system."

In Jamie Kornegay's bold, boundary-crushing, blackly comic debut novel, Soil, we first meet Jay a year later, after a drought, followed by torrential rains and floods, has virtually wiped out the property, leaving Jay penniless and even more unhinged. Sandy and Jacob have left for town, tired and a bit frightened of what Jay has become.

Boating along the Tockawah one day, Jay spies what looks like a gnarly log rising out of the muck. Closer inspection reveals the log to be a corpse; the body of a man, minus one hand. Jay thinks about his life and what an unflattering picture of him it paints, how he will be the easy target of any investigation. In his state of fragmentation and paranoia, Jay is certain the authorities will find him responsible. So he does what any man sinking into madness would do and starts to rid the property of any potential clues, starting with the corpse:

As he sat there appalled, with insects devouring him cell by cell and the rotten stench penetrating his mask, he settled on the only unassailable fact amid the tangle of bitter prospects -- no body, no crime.

Feeding into Jay's paranoia is a recent visit from Deputy Danny Shoals, asking about a missing person. Maybe the body was the deputy's handiwork, a setup.  While Jay may be a few bubbles shy of plumb, there's often something to that old Joseph Heller quote, "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you," and Deputy Shoals does harbor ulterior motives where Jay is concerned.

Like Jay, Shoals bears the mantle of a heavy family history, including a deceased hero father and an uncle who is the current sheriff.  Shoals, a "one-man special unit with an ear to the ground and a bulge for keeping the peace," drives around in his 1970 Mustang Boss, which he feels gives him instant respect and authority. Shoals has a bulge for more than keeping the peace and is the biggest sex hound I've read in quite some time, roaming town looking for sex anywhere he can get it and with anyone he can persuade to have it. When he sets his sights on Sandy Mize, who he finds "a cool duck and pretty as all get-out," all of his sexual fantasies and obsessions fixate on possessing her.

But wait, there's more. Toss into that cauldron of fuckedupness an old woodsman who believes Mize has done him a grave wrong and aims to see him pay for it. Leavenger implores Shoals to take care of it, but carries a need for personal revenge in his heart. The three men marinate in their own particular brand of madness as Soil carries through to their intersection and ultimate showdown.

Kornegay has written a book so fresh and bold I struggle for sufficient adjectives. I haven't provided many quotes because once I start I fear I won't be able to stop. Kornegay not only doesn't pull punches, he's done some party-pumps before letting the reader have it dead on with full force. Soil is violent, grotesque, taboo-busting, grisly, and gritty, but told in such a unique and confident voice it reads with beauty and humor that allow the reader to take that punch and happily ask for another.

The amount of time Kornegay spends on the painstaking details of deepening madness (not to mention body disposal) and sexual dysfunction in particular could have been a grave error in less capable hands. The exploits of Shoals almost lost me, mostly for the simple reason I find that malady less interesting, and would have been bored or put off by it ordinarily.  But Soil is far, far from ordinary. Here, the sexual component seems to be a smart counter-balance to Jay's mental instability, and the two sides feel just right when read together.

I also greatly admired Kornegay's ability to immerse me in Mississippi, which felt like just another well-drawn character, no easy feat. I'm usually loathe to come across passages about the weather, but I found myself looking forward to them in Soil, and was rewarded with gems like the following:

Autumn drove a lance up the ass of a summer that last weekend in September. The sky spewed rain and hail. Violent winds and lightning lashed the already broken land. A big twister cut a swath just north and west of the Mize place, ripping up what the flood had spared. In the storm's wake, a new chill descended. All manner of nature would now take its cue to start dying.

Soil is a book I'm going to carry with me for some time and I hope you'll give this fabulous piece of work a try. Even if you don't believe a word I've written about it, the lure of learning how to build a backyard crematorium should be enough to get you to pick up a copy when it comes out on March 12th. But here's something even niftier: The author is an independent bookseller and you can pre-order a signed copy directly from him at TurnRow Book Company.

STREET SENSE:  I could go on about Soil all day and would be shocked if it wasn't on my list of favorite reads for the year. It's not pretty, but I'd take it to the prom any day of the week.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:   Hardest decision I've had to make in a some time.  And I couldn't make it, so by default I'm giving you the first passage I highlighted, found on the first page of the book:

One afternoon in this supposed fall, in the bottoms near the Tockawah River, a slovenly woodman tottered through the underbrush, using an old pool cue to keep himself upright. He seemed put together from two separate men -- the upper one plumb, decisive and keenly observant; the lower one lost and withered, flailing along in a pained shuffle. His way was fraught with a thousand irritations and he addressed each one with a sign or a groan or a fit of whispered curses. He might have been a troll trampling through the forest, so miserably did he announce himself.

Ok, can't help it, one more:

The bird's grievous digestion had made an unseemly paste out of the dead man. This was someone once loved, now splattered in the dust like old gravy. If only Jay could find a method so efficient to dispose of the rest of him.

COVER NERD SAYS:  I found the cover serviceable.  It didn't grab me by the throat and compel me to pick up the book, but also didn't turn me off.  I thought the dark foliage and river of the photograph were decent portents of the book's innards and liked the subtle fuzz of the font. It would take a kickass cover not to pale in compare to what was inside, so the cover in this instance had a pretty tough gig.


Shannon @ River City Reading said...

Oh, this is so good to read. I've been excited about this book for a really long time. Seeing a great review from you is a fantastic sign!

Malcolm Avenue Review said...

I can't wait to hear what you think, Shannon. I hope it's wildly successful, it's that great, but I think it's also going to be polarizing. Should make for some interesting discussions.

Care said...

Fabulous review! And you have me wondering if this would or would NOT be a good companion read to Pet Sematary.

Running 'N' Reading said...

I wondered whether I would enjoy this one and, thanks to your review, I think I would! Found your blog through Shannon at River City Reading; can't wait to continue following along.

Malcolm Avenue Review said...

I just saw what Shannon did and can't believe her kindness. So happy you stopped in. I hope you will let me know what you think if you read Soil. I think it's going to be a bit polarizing, which is one of the things I loved about it. Jamie didn't care about everyone liking it, just did his thing and wrote bravely.

Running 'N' Reading said...

Those are some of the best works, right? Love this about the author! Thanks for the link to his bookstore, as well.

Care said...

We are starting a readalong on Twitter/Instagram with hashtag #gangstercats. Everyone is welcome!

Malcolm Avenue Review said...

Ha! How could I resist that hashtag. Thanks for the info!

Julianne - Outlandish Lit said...

Ahhh! I'm glad this went over so well with you. I'm going to read my ARC this week. It sounded right up my alley, but I heard some iffyness about it. You just got me excited again!

Malcolm Avenue Review said...

I think it's going to be polarizing, but I loved it so very much. I hope you're on my end of the pole! Let me know what you think when you're finished.

Running 'N' Reading said...

Jamie will be at the Arkansas Literary Festival next month and I can't wait; making plans to attend!

Malcolm Avenue Review said...

He is SO nice, I wish I could see/meet him in person. I will live vicariously through you, can't wait to hear a report!

About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


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