Village Voice review of Jujitsu for Christ

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By Jack Butler

August House, $14.95

Murder, lust, loneliness, life itself—all of it—stew together in the mind-boggling heat of a Mississippi summer.  “No human can live out there in the air and sun…The clank of giant mosquitoes off in the swamps, waiting for cover of evening to come suck your soul.  Fat moccasins throbbing beside the ditch, bawoomp, bawoomp, bawoomp.  Something has made your world, and not particularly with you in mind.”  At 11 a.m., your brain melts, between then and noon the corn grows two feet, and it’s not even lunchtime yet.  This is the Mississippi of Jack Butler’s novel Jujitsu for Christ.  It’s a place that breeds people who understand unreality.  The book’s white-kid hero has a black family and a quest for truth.  His home is a karate dojo in an old Jackson, Mississippi laundromat.  All this is the basis for an extraordinary story.

Ever since he saw that nickel-dime martial arts demonstration in his elementary school gym, round, lonely, white Mississippian Roger Wing has been a devoted practitioner.  Jujitsu, the “gentle art,” doesn’t mix too well with the feverish Baptist social life his horny little girlfriend is trying to rope him into; nobody teaches good southern Christian gals that tolerance is the path to glory, so Roger ends up opening his karate studio alone in a decrepit laundromat on the poor side of town.  He amasses a mismatched band of disciples including Marcus Gandy, who wanders into the studio one day and turns Roger’s life inside out.  Marcus is the youngest son of the black family across the street.  The Gandys grudgingly adopt Roger and as they all sweat out the Dixie summer together, the racial boundaries that kept them essentially separate begin to melt.

The Freedom Riders are about to arrive in Mississippi, and the state is getting ready to explode.  The white population, particularly the bankers, cops, and newspapermen, are scared and squirming like snakes on the burning asphalt.  It’s every man for himself.  The devil has already taken the hindmost and now he’s after the innocent.  Marcus’s older brother T.J. is being led straight to hell by one asshole friend of his named Leon Cool.  Then his emotionally fragile 13-year-old sister makes Roger an offer he should never have even considered.  She sees him a couple of days after with a white girl, and her already weak grip on sanity breaks.  Roger drops by the Gandy’s one night just in time to see her loaded into an ambulance:  one of her personal devils, loosed by her encounter with Roger, insisted her face and hands should be pink like his.  So she washed them with Drano.  Mrs. Gandy starts drinking to kill the pain of seeing her family torn apart.  Roger suffers, blames himself.  The Gandys are more family to him than his alienated mother and stepfather, but he seems to infect them every time he walks in their house.

This here’s the South, says Jujitsu’s author, and everybody is a good Christian, especially the white people.  A bunch of devoted Baptists like Roger’s girlfriend can profess that black people are lower on the evolutionary ladder than whites, and in church the next day scream about what a pack of heinous lies evolutionary theory is.   The newspapers rail against what they call the senseless murder of white people, but when a black man dies under suspicious circumstances the papers say he got himself killed.  Popular “wisdom” can’t explain the craziness that corrupts the town, takes T.J.’s life, and finally scatters the Gandys forever.  Roger, however, has blessed himself with a discipline that makes physical fear unknown to him, and when T.J. is beaten to death by deranged whites during halftime at an Ole Miss game, only Roger has the presence of mind to go and find little Marcus, stuff him into Mr. Gandy’s old Studebaker, and get the hell out of stinking Mississippi so Marcus can have a shot at growing up.

No doubt this book is going to get lumped with the other Southem comic novels so popular now, the ones where the silly-sounding vernacular makes the racism go down a little easier.  Roger does bear a comforting resemblance to Homer Price, the simple, small-town hero of childrens’ books 20 years ago, as well as to Ed McLanahan’s protagonist in his hilarious The Natural Man, and a couple of people Walker Percy invented.  But the objective in Jujitsu for Christ is elusive and entirely different, its talk is less ridiculous, its humor more believable, and its descriptions are really beautiful.  Butler describes Roger’s girlfriend’s voice as having “a pleasing vocal furriness like the sound of a child talking into the spinning blades of a fan.”

Jujitsu for Christ is a complicated story, told with a focus that blurs and shifts so much that for the first half of the book you can’t even tell who’s black and who’s white.  While you’re trying to get the picture together, you feel like some clumsy Jujitsu sparring partner of Roger’s with no sense of balance any more, but you know where the floor is because it just hit you on the back of your head.  You have to take this fall in order to see things the way this book needs you to.  You figure things the same way Roger does, by concentration and trial.  After all, karate isn’t something you know, it’s something you practice.  Its function in this book is to provide a model for a method of cultivating the truth.

But even karate promises nothing in the way of security.  Roger and Marcus have left their whole lives behind, and Marcus still misses his father and needs his love.  “See me, Poppa. Why didn’t you even mention me in yo letter?  You always love T.J. so much, why didn’t you notice me?  See me, Poppa.”  Marcus is safe at last and I was relieved, but after Butler’s last sentence I felt something much more, a sensation I hear about all the time but is nonetheless rare and special.  A cold wind blew right through me.  Every hair stood up straight.  I tried reading the book through again and the same thing happened.  I was just as awed, breathless, and sad.  This is not Jujitsu for Christ’s only miracle, but it’s a good enough reason to go and read it.  Twice.

—Sally Eckhoff

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