Mark Binelli turns his sharp, forceful prose to fiction in an inventive retelling of the outrageous life of Screamin' Jay Hawkins, a bluesman with one hit and a string of inflammatory guises.
He came onstage in a coffin, carried by pallbearers, drunk enough to climb into his casket every night. Onstage he wore a cape, clamped a bone to his nose, and carried a staff topped with a human skull. Offstage, he insisted he'd been raised by a tribe of Blackfoot Indians, that he'd joined the army at 14, that he'd defeated the middleweight boxing champion of Alaska, and that he'd fathered 75 illegitimate children.
The R&B wildman Screamin' Jay Hawkins had only a single hit - the classic "I Put a Spell On You" - and was often written off as a clownish novelty act or, worse, an offense to his race. But his myth-making was legendary. In his second novel, Mark Binelli embraces the man and the legend to create a hilarious, tragic, fantastical portrait of this unlikeliest of protagonists. Hawkins saw his life story as a wild picaresque, and Binelli's novel follows suit, tackling the subject in a dazzling collage-like style.
At Rolling Stone, Binelli has profiled some of the greatest musicians of our time, and this novel deftly plays with the inordinate focus on "authenticity" in so much music writing about African Americans. An entire novel built around a musician as deliberately inauthentic as Screamin' Jay Hawkins thus becomes a sort of subversive act as well as an extremely funny and surprisingly moving one.
Cover design by Lucy Kim.