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Friday Indie Review: Freak Story: 1967-1969 by Jim Musgrave

Let me start by saying this:  this book wasn’t necessarily my cup of tea.  It turns out to be a sort of life-and-times story rather than a cohesive novel, and I’m just not a big fan of that story structure.  That’s more of an issue of taste than of any serious flaw, but know what you’re getting into.  Instead of one, overarching story, each chapter is more a vignette striking the overarching theme of the book.  It’s not scatterbrained, but it just didn’t hook me.

That said, not even Mr. Holland’s Opus managed to hook me, and I love band teachers.  The life-and-times tale doesn’t do it for me.
But I do need to address this book in particular, because there are moments of pure genius in it.  I just want to warn anyone reading this review that I personally don’t like books whose purpose is to convey a setting rather than a plot, and that is what this book is designed to do.

Freak Story:  1967-1969 is more of a meditation than a novel.  It’s meant to give one a feeling of the times, mostly by giving us a slightly heightened version of the times.

Our protagonist, Buddy Hartman, is a living sign of the times.  He’s a hippie writer, no doubt, but we quickly find there is much more to him than that.  He’s black (in the 60s), and openly gay (in the 60s).  With the exception of Women’s Rights, he is at the cutting edge of almost every civil rights issue out there, and he lives it.  In order to make him even more outside the norm, though, he’s also the biological son of one Daisy Hilton.  He was placed up for adoption, though, and grew up in the home of a heroin addict/prostitute.

Buddy makes his way through the 60s as a sort of lens for us, letting us meet characters real and fictional.  Buddy is a writer, and the story is written in the first person, and so the act of Buddy writing the story becomes something of a meta-story for us.

Both Buddy and Musgrave are unmistakenly good writers.  When he’s really working it, Musgrave comes up with some of the most vivid imagery I’ve read in these indie books.  Take his description of the lady who helps him find his birth certificate:

“She was about seventy-five, with wisps of gray hair sprouting out of her head in several places like whiskers of an old cat or a Salem witch. The almost purple bags under her dark-brown eyes held the years of government apparatchik employment and supported the bloodshot reality of her minority status in the public trenches of America, and, most likely, in the heralded occupation of her local church choir.  Her fanny spread out on the ancient wooden seat like a massive dark pillow that could have easily swallowed my 150 pounds of homosexual body like Cthulhu’s squid head”

The problem is, Musgrave doesn’t keep that sort of meditation going.  In a book that’s largely about visualizing times and places, he falls into dialogue very quickly.  And when this book hits dialogue, it’s like hitting a brick wall.  Characters described with elegant grace suddenly become very stiff and wooden, and that’s a problem.  I envision Musgrave as having enjoyed the hell out of writing some chapters, while getting others done because damn it I need to get this chapter done.  Thus, the book tends to swing wildly between the sensuality of being on drugs and the hangover afterwords.  If this is intentionally done to enhance the feel of the 60s, it does so, but at a cost.

The other problem is the lack of a lens.  That excerpt above?  That’s not a paragraph.  It’s cut from the middle of a paragraph.  Let me give you the whole paragaph:

“She waddled over to the printer and came back with a sheet of formal-looking paper. She immediately put it–disguised it, actually–between the leaves of a manila folder and slid it over to me on the desk as if it were a death certificate and not the certificate of my live birth. She was about seventy-five, with wisps of gray hair sprouting out of her head in several places like whiskers of an old cat or a Salem witch. The almost purple bags under her dark-brown eyes held the years of government apparatchik employment and supported the bloodshot reality of her minority status in the public trenches of America, and, most likely, in the heralded occupation of her local church choir. Her fanny spread out on the ancient wooden seat like a massive dark pillow that could have easily swallowed my 150 pounds of homosexual body like Cthulhu’s squid head. Why couldn’t she be my mother? The tortuous experience I had with my adoptive black mother was almost like being sucked into a void. She was a heroin addict and whore who had me pimping for her before I was six years of age, but I digress.”

Whoa!  That awesome description is preceded by the woman going to get the birth certificate and delivering it, and followed by this knee-jerk response from Buddy wanting our government gal to be his mom.  This is also the first time in the book where we hear what Buddy’s mom was like.  I think the story of how his mother “was a heroin addict and whore who had me pimping for her before I was six years of age” really doesn’t need to be tagged to the back end of a paragraph about Cthulu Fanny.  I bet that story could have its own paragraph.

This continues throughout the book.  Musgrave wanders aimlessly, writing in a stream-of-consciousness fashion.

And there is a lot of ennui.  Buddy feels pretty sorry for himself, and it shows.  I’m speaking as someone who writes primarily in the first person, here, and one of the great weaknesses of the perspective is that it is hard to portray negative emotions without coming across as a whiner.  Buddy will occasionally fall into this trap.  This is too bad, because as a gay, black, son of a freakshow starlet and adopted son of a drug whore in the late 60s, Buddy has all kinds of very legitimate reasons to experience negative emotions.  When he simply tells you his emotions, though, it tends to fall flat.

Finally, the feel of the book can shift to the didactic when it begins speaking of history.  From the rich, meandering descriptions, we get sections that could fit into high school history textbooks without being noticed.  Remember as you read the following paragraphs that you’re actually reading a novel written in first person, and you can see how jolting this is:

“The public schools in Mecklenburg County were being integrated very slowly. Although the firstblack student to attend a white high school was Dorothy Counts, the daughter of a professor ofTheology at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, she was eventually run out of school due to the harassment from white students. They threw objects at her, spat on her and told her to go back to Africa. That was September 4, 1957.

The State of North Carolina was able to successfully bypass the federal integration laws bydrafting the Pearsall Plan, named after the chairman of the special state government committee formed to “study the integration issue.” The new Pearsall Plan began a system of local–not state–control, freedom-of-choice, and vouchers. The freedom-of-choice system allowed students to attend the school they wanted, and the voucher system allowed parents to use state money to support their  child’s education in private school. Technically, it was a local plan, not a state plan, so they were not disobeying the federal guidelines. In effect, the Pearsall Plan did little to integrate North Carolina’s public schools. With a few exceptions, such as Greensboro’s schools, most schools in North Carolina remained segregated.

On May 31, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to Charlotte to speak to six black high schools. King spoke to the groups just days after the students of Johnson C. Smith University, an all blackschool, marched through downtown Charlotte to protest the segregation laws. King praised themarch because he agreed that the protests were starting to have a real impact on the Civil RightsMovement.

In 1965, most black students in Charlotte attended all-black schools in the inner-city. Many parents of these black students wanted justice from the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board ofEducation in 1954. They knew their all-black schools were not equal to the all-white schools.

However, the public school system was not budging. On January 19, 1965, Julius Chambers, a localblack attorney, acting on behalf of Vera and Darius Swann, whose son had been assigned to all-black Biddleville Elementary School near Johnson C. Smith University, filed legal briefs in FederalDistrict Court in Charlotte. Chambers argued that the pupil assignment plan of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools violated the United States Constitution and that the School Board was obligated to take more resolute action to eliminate the vestiges of racial segregation that persisted in the public schools.

However, on November 22, 1965, the homes of Charlotte’s black civil rights activists JuliusChambers, the lawyer in the Swann case, Fred Alexander, the first black elected to the Charlotte City Council and Reginald Hawkins, the dentist and Presbyterian minister who led the Smith University march, were bombed with dynamite. Although nobody was harmed, it was a major injustice because nobody was arrested and nobody was charged with the crimes.

It was this law suit, which had been rejected recently by a lower court, which caused Reverend Sills and several other pastors in Charlotte to stage a Thanksgiving Day march to the city hall and courthouse, which was taking place tomorrow. They were calling for an appeal to the highest court in the land in order to find cause why the public school system of Charlotte should notintegrate its schools in a “post haste fashion.”

All of my bitching aside, the effect these rapid shifts in tone and style have on the reader is, in fact, very Zen.  Since Buddy sincerely admits to us that Kerouac is one of his favorite authors, and that he strives for a Zen feel in his writing, mission accomplished.  The combined straight-laced didactics when compared to the wild revels and hard fights for Civil Rights that appear in this book allow the book to convey the feeling of the late 60s in a really efficient fashion.  The reader feels lost and out of place for most of the book, and I can’t help but wonder if Musgrave’s intent was to get us lost but present us with sensuality in order to emulate the feel of being part of these movements in the 60s.  If so, the intent is masterfully carried off, even if it’s not an intent I would ever approach a book with.

Would I recommend this book?  I’d need to know you.  There are going to be certain people who absolutely love this book.  It is a legitimate viewpoint, and you may be one of those people.  At its best, it triumphs in pulling the reader into a time and a place.  It conveys a setting far better than just about anything I’ve read.  At its worst, though, it meanders and runs into wooden dialogue and didactic history lectures.  If the former is worth the latter to you, then you need to pick this book up.  If not, then maybe this is a pass.

*Originally posted by Frog Jones