Wise Crack

Delicious Foods: A Novel BY James Hannaham. Little, Brown and Company. Hardcover, 384 pages. $26.

When crack cocaine enters a story, we usually brace ourselves for a downfall. The tales of those who have fallen prey to the drug are so familiar that they have taught even nonusers to consider themselves experts. Many speak knowingly of the crack addict—gaunt, unkempt, willing to do anything for the next fix. In James Hannaham’s second novel, Delicious Foods, crack figures heavily in two ways. Darlene Hardison, a young widow, is an addict, and Scotty, who narrates a good deal of the novel, is crack personified (that’s right: Crack is one of the novel’s narrators). This is a welcome change to the standard, purely abject crack narrative: Hannaham circumvents the usual pity and loathing that permeate most addiction stories and instead investigates the source of crack’s power—how it cajoles its users into surrendering, how it speaks.

When the novel opens, Eddie, seventeen, is on the run in what he thinks is Louisiana, though he isn’t entirely sure. He has left the farm where he spent much of his childhood, and he worries he is being chased. His hands have been cut off, and he’s doing his damnedest to get by with a stolen car and $184. This gripping, and disorienting, opening raises many questions, most notably: How did Eddie come to such a pass? Hannaham’s engaging novel flashes back in time to answer these questions in surprising ways.

Eddie’s parents, Darlene and Nat, are African American students who meet at Grambling State University after the Vietnam War. Nat is dating Hazel, one of Darlene’s sorority sisters, when he and Darlene begin an affair. It is an intoxicating time: “Their secret dalliance inflated her—it practically pulled her skin taut with joy.” On a weekend when they think Hazel is at a basketball game, they steal away to a bed-and-breakfast in Shreveport to finally consummate their relationship. All is blissful until Hazel discovers them. They are ostracized, mostly Darlene, though Nat, too, endures his fair share of petty torments and physical violence from people they once called friends.

Things get so bad that Darlene and Nat transfer to Centenary College, in Shreveport. Because of the difficulties they have endured, the two become inextricably bound to each other. “We’re practically the same person now,” Darlene explains. After college, they settle in Ovis, Louisiana, where Darlene gives birth to Eddie. They open Mount Hope Grocery and build a life for themselves. Nat becomes interested in political action and is embraced, if somewhat warily, by the townspeople. Hannaham writes, “For the most part they admired Nat’s determination to mobilize the community, his fund-raising, his voter-registration drives, but they did not expect rapid change.”

Just before Eddie turns six, two policemen show up at the Hardison home. Nat has been murdered. In the wake of this news, Darlene succumbs to a grief from which she cannot emerge. At first, she tries to lead a semblance of the life she led with Nat, but it quickly falls apart. Darlene and Eddie move to Houston, where she starts smoking crack and takes to the streets as a prostitute to support her habit. She descends into addiction and ultimately abandons Eddie, who immerses himself in Houston’s underworld, searching for his mother. Darlene, meanwhile, winds up back in Louisiana. There she is forced into what can only be described as indentured servitude on a farm called Delicious Foods, where crack and liquor are readily available to keep the workforce pliant. Through a strange sequence of events, Eddie makes his way to Delicious Foods himself. He becomes part of his mother’s life once again, though Darlene remains more devoted to her addiction than anything else.

Delicious Foods captures what it was like to be black in the South at the end of the past century. Hannaham’s prose is gloriously dense and full of elegant observations that might go unmade by a lesser writer. There is great warmth in this novel that tackles darkness. Darlene’s behavior may appall, but the author reveals how circumstances guided her fate. He also creates full-bodied characters. Even the minor figures are drawn with subtle details. Sparkplug McKeon, for instance, is “the most frankly angry man
for miles.”

The novel is most affecting when we see the world from Eddie’s perspective, as he attempts to make sense of his bewildering experiences. When Darlene takes up with Sextus, the owner of Delicious Foods, the young Eddie “drew conclusions on his own from hearing their labored breathing and Sextus’s feral grunts through the door, their low voices and whispers, their frequent invocations of the Lord. At first he tried to convince himself that they were merely praying together.”

Hannaham’s decision to give a voice to crack—in the character Scotty—occasions some lively and inventive writing. Scotty has swagger and a sly sense of humor, and when he narrates he holds your attention. Describing Texas, he says: “Texas was stupid, I’m sorry. Fat sunburned gluttons and tacky mansions everywhere, glitzy cars that be the size of a pachyderm, a thrift store and a pawn shop for every five motherfuckers.” The character is complex, both tender and ruthless. That said, it is incredibly distracting to realize that great swaths of the narration emanate not from a person but from an anthropomorphized drug. Disbelief can only be suspended so much. The novel’s rushed conclusion, too, challenges belief: When Eddie finds his way to a safe, almost bucolic existence, it feels as if Hannaham knew he had to wrap up the novel but did not quite know how to exit the engrossing world he had built.

These missteps, however, do little to detract from what is, on the whole, a grand, empathetic, and funny novel about addiction, labor exploitation, and love. Hannaham tells a familiar story in a most unfamiliar way. Delicious Foods should be read for its bold narrative risks, as well as the heart and humor of its author’s prose.

Roxane Gay is the author of An Untamed State (Grove, 2014) and Bad Feminist (HarperPerennial, 2014).