Thursday, September 3, 2009

Under the Reefer Moon




“Some doctor at the Melrose Resort was comparing it to Brothers Karamazov,” Roger Pinckney was saying about his new novel, Reefer Moon, published last month by Joggling Board Press. Then he grinned a rapscallion grin and added, “I said I thought it was more like Brothers Kutyernutzoff, myself.” 


We were at the Freeport Marina on Daufuskie Island. Daufuskie is the southernmost point in South Carolina, our last sea island. If Hilton Head looks like a boot, Daufuskie is the ball it’s about to kick. 


Freeport Marina is one of the two ways on—or off—of the bridgeless island. In the middle of the small store, surrounded by crackers, soda, gum, and crab nets, sat a table loaded down with Pinckney’s books. You could almost overlook his previous titles—Seventh Son, Blue Roots, The Right Side of the River, Signs and Wonders, and Little Glory—so surrounded were they by the “Lucky J” shrimp boats emblazoned with the pot leaves on the cover of Reefer Moon. Then there was the paraphernalia. T-shirts and hats sported the Reefer Moon logo: the South Carolina state flag with a marijuana leaf at the top of the palmetto. 


The Reefer Moon state flag may not please everyone—Pinckney’s own mother has warned people away from the book, calling it trashy— but the main character, Yancey Yarboro embodies the peculiar characteristics of the modern Lowcountry like no one else in our fiction. And it may just be the trashiness that helps us learn to listen to things Pincnkey has been trying to tell us for the past twelve years. 

Yarboro, a Vietnam War vet, farms tomatoes at his father’s place on Daufuskie. His father, a retired judge, had been mired in scandal and alcohol ever since he shot two burglars through the head with one bullet. Yancey discovers that the old man may sell the land to an Atlanta Real Estate Developer named Poogie Drake. Yancey knows that the land is not his, it belongs to the Gullah and to the Indians before them, and yet the rages to save it. 


After an affair with a Savannah stripper ends in a bar fight, Yancey finds himself falling in love with Susan Drake, the developer’s wife. Yancey is always quoting scripture and he is a fundamentalist Christian of a strange sort, but when he needs help with Susan he goes to the local hoodoo man, or root doctor, Gator Brown. 


It’s when he’s gone to gather some graveyard dust for Gator’s spell that Yancey finds the missing dope that gives the book its title. Four hundred pounds worth. This plotline is based on the true events surrounding Operation Jackpot, one of the biggest drug-busts in U.S. history, pulled off—or almost pulled off—entirely by Beaufort amateurs. Yancey, of course, gets irrevocably mixed up in it all. Christy and Mike, the principle smugglers, disappear, leaving Yancey to dance to the music.


 Yancey seems to experience the world with a prophetic intensity that the biblical rhythms of Pinckney’s conversational prose captures well: “He was in the world—like the Good Book says—but often he was not of it, like John the Baptizer, to lay an axe to the trunks of the trees not bearing fruit.” Though motivated by such radical notions, Yancey is not irrational. He works according to a reason of his own, a reason he calls poetry, and blames on the Chinese bullet lodged in his brain. But, when his mother and father drunkenly try to run him over with the car, we know Yancey didn’t need a war to get the way he was.


In many ways Yancey Yarboro is like his creator, though Pinckney warns “I made him a little crazy so he could say things I couldn’t.”  Anybody who has ever met Roger Pinckney or taken his tour of Daufuskie knows that he says pretty much whatever he damn well pleases. 


To tour Daufuskie with Pinckney is sort of like taking a riverboat ride with Mark Twain. I came out to ride along on the second tour of a hot August day. We had six people, three generations of an African American family from Maryland.  Most people get around the small island on golf-carts, but we loaded into a van, equipped with a microphone and were off. 


“Daufuskie is the right side of the river. The rest of North America is the wrong side,” Pinckney was saying as the road cut through the jungle of palmetto and oaks hung with Spanish moss and resurrection ferns. “We try to be as self-sufficient as we can over here. We got shrimp, we got fish, we got oysters now again, we got venison and we got big gardens and we got chickens, lay eggs. But once in a while,” he added with a flourish of his hand, leaning into the microphone like a soul singer, “we got to go for liquor, light bulbs and toilet paper. We got to go to Hilton Head. And we hate to go there so that we call it Hilton Hell.” 


Everybody laughed.  


Roger went on to explain the development battles that have shaped Daufuskie. “In the 1970s, the real estate wizards over in Hilton Head were looking around and they could see that one day Hilton Head was one day going to be built up and they were looking for another spot to work their magic.  So, in 1979, they came to Daufuskie… They spent two hundred million dollars— and went broke.” 


Pinckney paused. The van edged forward past an old oysterman’s shack.


“The second batch came in and bought at a discount, spent another hundred and fifty million… and all went broke. The third batch bought Melrose Resort. Five years later, they declared bankruptcy. Some say it was marine transportation that did them in. But other people say that Dr. Buzzard did it. Voodoo doctor from Beaufort who put the ‘No Money Root’ on Daufuskie. Because when the money came in, the property taxes went up so high that people lost the land they’d had since they first got Freedom.” 



Roger Pinckney is white, but he believes that being African American is about more than race. 


“Africa defines the South. It makes southerners different from all the rest of Americans, black or white,” he was telling the black family on the tour bus as we parked in front of the First Union African Baptist church. “Because our speech patterns, the food we eat… you know the statement that the wealth of the South was built with the sweat of slaves. It was also built with the brains of slaves. They built this country not just with sweat but with skills.” 


Inside the old church Pinckney’s voice boomed like that of a black preacher. During a stint in Minnesota (where he was so addicted to hunting bears that he changed his son’s birth date so that it would not be on the opening day of bear season), Roger was the preacher at Maplewood Lutheran Church. He called the seven years he spent there an interesting tenure but said he “eased out” when Blue Roots, his book on the “African American Folk magic of the Gullah people” came out. “Much murmuring among the Norwegian faithful,” he said by way of explanation. 


Yancey Yarboro seems to share Pinckney’s convictions and his proclivities. “Yancey was a Baptist and they called him a backslider. Yancey knew better. He ran with loose women because he was tempted more than most men. Yes, he loved his whiskey, but mostly drank beer.”


Well, except Pinckney seems to have found himself a serious woman now.  And he mostly drinks liquor (it’s easier to transport on the ferry). He wrote so well about Young Heaven Hill whiskey that I had to bring him a big old plastic half gallon jug of it. After the tour, we sat around the living room of his Melrose cottage and drank it. Melrose? One of the abandoned resorts? 


“There was a lot of people mad after the book,” Pinckney explained. “I needed to get a little bit of distance between me and them.” 


It was a nice place, you could see the ocean from the window. It was one of maybe three dozen duplex cabins, almost all of them pastel and cheery but empty. A kind of eerie ghost town. 


“Who was mad?” I asked.


“Real Estate people mostly,” he said. “I don’t know why. There’s not a bad person in the book. Even Poogie is trying.” 


I thought maybe they were mad because Pinckney had succeeded where they’d so often failed. He owned the island. Not literally, but in the way that only a writer can own a place when a book gets it just right. Of course, writers don’t often come afoul of Dr. Buzzard’s “No Money Root.”  And that, says Pinckney, is the other good thing about his cottage: since the resort is closed down, it’s a cheap place to finish up the two books he has in the works. 





1 comment:

  1. Just finished Reefer Moon. I couldn't put it down...probably because in late Sept.'09 when the book was just starting distribution, I had taken the tour with Roger on Daufuskie Island...saw the old African Baptist Church, the black 'grabe yard', Dr. Buzzard's grave with some coins and a tube of lipstick on it, presumably in exchange for some goofus dust.
    I saw so many things/places mentioned in Reefer Moon. I'll never forget Roger saying, during the tour, "..the shame of it is you folks will only believe half of what I'm telling ya'll, but it's all true!" As I read the book, the places and lore came back to me and I was transported back to Daufaskie Island!! Great book!!