Woodward, a Pushcart Prize nominee and Florida-based physician, tries much too hard to marry bawdy comedy to Southern melodrama in his overstuffed, restless and fundamentally confounding debut novel.
Populated with literally dozens of tangential characters frequenting its many seedy bars, the fictional town of Johnsonville, Fla., is home turf for an African-American family pitted against their enemies and each other. Theodore “Teo” Toak is a bail bondsman turned slumlord who possesses ruthless confidence and the instincts of a jackal. He’s profoundly disappointed with his apathetic son, Feddy, who never quite recovered after a paramour he’d beaten senseless put three bullets in him for his trouble. The only semi-decent member of the family might be Feddy’s son, Jesmond, a reluctant repo man who does dirty work for a predatory rent-to-own shop. Jesmond has a lot on his mind: His pregnant lover Peaches is married to a half-cocked military policeman, and his gay friend Bayonne has been accused of murdering a 500-pound white man. Looming in the background is town father Medgar Coots, an addiction consultant to the city’s AIDS alliance who embroils his ailing charges in a fraudulent insurance scheme. Woodward has a flair for capturing absurdity, and he gains some traction portraying the clash of personalities between devious Coots and provocative Teo, who loses his fortunes but gains a conscience in the midst of Hurricane Burt. Unfortunately, the whirlpool of ill-conceived scams, eccentric characters and superfluous elements ultimately drowns his more interesting inventions. Woodward aims to apply a lyrical Southern Gothic tone to his modern-day surroundings. Avoiding this would have been smarter.
Reads as though a dozen decent short stories had been hurled into a blender.