It says a lot about the new Ishmael Reed novel, Juice!, that the first thing I wanted to do after finishing it was to do a news search for “O.J. Simpson.” Reed finished writing the book on January 2, 2011 – extraordinarily recently, for a novel with a street publishing date of April 4, 2011 – but up until the second he sit “send” on the manuscript, he scoured the headlines and loudmouthed cable TV channels, alert for evidence of O.J.-bashing or O.J.-obsessing.
Juice! is a story of O.J. obsession narrated by a self-confessed O.J. obsessive named Paul Blessings, nicknamed Bear. If that doesn’t sound like enough to spin a 336-page novel around, then Juice! is not for you. Though it has other pleasures, these other pleasures tend to dwindle along the way, and on any page the narrator can disappear into yet another rant about the racist media’s obsession with O.J. Simpson, the murder of his former wife Nicole Brown Simpson and his many legal entanglements. Much of this novel is scathing media criticism – I wouldn’t even say “disguised as a novel” – just scathing media criticism.
As for those other pleasures, the novel begins in a voice that is somewhat new for Reed, who has published nine previous novels (Mumbo Jumbo being the best). It is a calm, self-reflective, quietly funny voice, kind of like an old-head African-American Kurt Vonnegut. An aging cartoonist who hides fried chicken coupons while carping about his diabetes, he talks politics and basketball with his oldest buddies, in an internet chat room rather than on a street corner or bar stool – and admits he prefers the virtual reality version. This is when Bear has the most substance as a character, and he is likable and real. “I’m a black man and I’m supposed to avoid stress,” Bear notes. “Let me run that by you again. I’m a black man and I’m supposed to avoid stress.”
Reed builds a narrative structure intended to contain or at least challenge Bear’s propensity to go into the deep end over O.J. and the white media’s blood lust for him. Bear’s wife gets weary of his obsession and delivers an ultimatum: it’s O.J. or his family. But this narrative structure proves to be uselessly flimsy in the face of Bear’s – or Reed’s – desire to vent in fury over the media mobbing O.J. At one point, we are told Bear’s wife wins and Bear goes cold turkey on his obsession, but we are never shown that; it’s just one of many interruptions in the rant.
Mind you, it’s a good rant. Whether or not you think O.J. killed his former wife, or deserved to lose the civil suit, or was framed in the later Las Vegas caper over his stolen memorabilia, Juice! makes a thoroughly convincing case that the white-dominated media lost their collective marbles over the story of the handsome black former athlete and his gruesomely murdered, beautiful blonde former wife. Starting with the televised pursuit of a white Ford Bronco transporting O.J. Simpson down the freeways of Los Angeles on June 17, 1994, the American media has been forever Juiced! – for the worse. I’m not sure I needed a 336-page novel to convince me of that, but I am convinced.
I certainly didn’t need convincing that the idea of a “post-race” America is ridiculous, but I really enjoyed Reed’s destructions – no, I didn’t mean “deconstructions” – of this idea. Here is the funniest: “Next time you’re stopped by a black-male-hating cop like [Mark] Fuhrman, who said that if he saw a white woman in a car with a black man he’d stop the car (yet dated black women), tell this cop that race is a social construct.”