Books: A full term in the school of hard knocks

Oxherding Tale by Charles Johnson Payback pounds 6.99
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The Independent Culture
Charles Johnson's tales are set in the slavery days of the Deep South and deal with miscegenation, racism and buddhism. They involve young men with confusion-creating identities falling under the spell of older women with life-endangering tendencies. So when Flo Hatfield, a boa constrictor of a widow whose butlers have a habit of meeting with rather grisly ends, informs newly arrived employee Andrew Hawkins that eating a good piece of meat is like making love, you can just imagine the punchline.

What Flo actually means is that making love is like eating a good piece of meat and in the same breath, she sizes up the nearest young man, a six-foot chicken quiche. Freeze frame. Cue music.

Thankfully for us, Andrew Hawkins, intrepid vegetarian whose life is the Oxherding Tale, stays on for a full term in the school of hard knocks. Apart from private lessons with man-eating Flo Hatfield, he also takes masterclasses from blood-curdlingly spooky Horace Bannon aka The Soulcatcher, a bounty hunter so evil that the three other horseman of the apocalypse must have done a runner when they saw him coming.

Then there's Reb, the worldly-wise coffin-maker, who gets a tad Taoist on Andrew. And just to bring a touch of gravitas to the proceedings there's a cameo from Karl Marx who holds forth on the true nature of the transcendental ego after a spot of glib bitching about that dumbkopf Engels.

As you can imagine, all of the above make for a surreal, fantastical story but it all works because the very essence of Oxherding Tale is fantasy in the extreme. Andrew Hawkins is no ordinary young man making his way in the world. He is the product of shockingly unconventional behaviour for the 19th century (and possibly the 20th as well) - race mixing. You see, his African-American valet father and slave-owning employer had a little too much to drink one night. And ended up in the wrong beds. The valet didn't have that much to drink, though.

So Andrew is an accident with attitude, an illegitimacy caught between two worlds separated by impregnable barriers. A living, breathing but, more importantly, thinking hybrid who tries to make sense of his own life, the young man faces cruel ironies. He may enjoy the privilege of a private education courtesy of his white family but still has to buy the freedom of his black family and the slave-girl he loves.

Johnson's talent really lies in the propulsive coherence he brings to this rich, densely-layered series of adventures. It would have been so easy to fall victim to his own intricacy but he keeps his focus while vibrantly colouring Oxherding Tale's narrative with anything from caustic comic capers (Flo Hatfield is a parody of Kamala, a character from Herman Hesse's Siddartha) to buddhist philosophy to stylistic references to Melville and Fielding. Never does he move too far from the epicentre of the story - Andrew's struggle to define his identity, to keep his spiritual balance in a world criss-crossed with racial barbed wire.

A consummate penseur as well as an artful, picaresque storyteller, Charles Johnson proves quite emphatically with Oxherding Tale that the multi-genre narrative - the bastard child of the racy novel and more sober doctorate thesis - really can work. Every time the story strays a bit too close to the edge of intellectual swampland, the author puts it back on track with compellingly dramatic twists. The penultimate scene at the slave auction, where Andrew discovers love at a crippling cost, is superbly crafted, its impact devastating.

Following his award-winning Middle Passage and last year's brilliant Dreamer, Oxherding Tale confirms Johnson's status as a serious contender in the contemporary American literature arena.