James Brown connects two boys, white and black, in a light novel about North Carolina in the tense 1960s.
Veteran novelist Edgerton (The Bible Salesman, 2008, etc.) is profoundly skilled at taking on some of Southern literature’s most difficult themes—race and religion especially—and addressing them with both respect and humor. The hero of his latest, set in 1963, is Larry Lime, a black teenager whose musical talent is nurtured by the Bleeder, the star pianist at a club on the outskirts of a small North Carolina town. Larry takes what he's learned to his job at a furniture shop, where he advises Dwayne, who's trying to get his band to play a note-for-note version of James Brown’s iconic Live at the Apollo album. Southern mores demand that Larry support Dwayne (who's white) without attracting attention, and Edgerton deftly shifts from intimate looks at their growing friendship to wide-angle shots of the racial divides among businesses and residents in the area. And he smartly merges social commentary with comedy: As Larry and Dwayne concoct a ridiculous plot to toss a chicken from a movie-theater balcony during a tense scene in The Birds, Edgerton gently highlights how the theater’s segregation policy inspired the idea in the first place. Various subplots involving Larry's extended family underscore the point that the color line was more porous than anybody wanted to admit at the time, though in the closing chapters Edgerton strains to sound an uplifting note without coming off as mawkish. Still, the command of Southern idioms and culture that earned him his reputation remains solid, and his affinity for simple sentences and clean chapter breaks give this slim novel an almost fable-like power.
Edgerton’s knowledge about music is on full display, as is his understanding of the subtleties of race relations as the Civil Rights Movement picked up steam.