Eric Dezenhall’s latest Jonah Eastman novel, Spinning Dixie, treads dangerously close to being a one dimensional, paint-by-numbers satire. But a nostalgic, and rather touching, core and a talent for pop culture references (and criticism) make it a readable and entertaining romp despite an overly complex plot and some flat characters.
Here is the dust jacket plot summary:
When a gorgeous woman appears at the gates of the White House bearing a mysterious letter, disgraced Presidential Press Secretary and professional spinmeister Jonah Eastman knows that his past has finally caught up with him. Raised by a Jewish mobster in Atlantic City, Jonah was only seventeen when he met Claudine Polk, an unabashed Southern belle, and placed her on an unshakable pedestal for one glorious summer of reckless youth and first love.
Now Claudine desperately needs Jonahâ€™s help to save Rattle & Snap, her familyâ€™s plantation in Tennessee, from the hands of her crooked soon-to-be-ex-husband. Jonah must use all of his connections, from shady undercover agents to the President himself, to engage in Operation Dixie Knish and save his Southern belleâ€™s ancestral home.
The book consists of three main threads. The strongest thread is a flashback to the summer Jonah spent with Claudine at Rattle & Snap. Dezenhall doesn’t play up the city boy living on a plantation aspect as might be expected, but instead pens what is in many ways a touching look at the bewildering nature of first love and the transition from adolescence to adulthood. At seventeen Jonah is trying to come to grips with his past (the unique experience of being raised by mobster grandparents in New Jersey) and his future (Dartmouth and then what?) while at the same time he is caught up in the whirlwind that is the drop dead gorgeous Claudine.
The book skillfully weaves in current events like President Carter’s handling of the Iranian hostage crisis and popular music (Devo comes up more than once) while exploring the emotional and physical roller coaster ride of a teenage boy’s crush on a beautiful girl. Anyone who has experienced such a crush and the confusing, and often painful, flood of feelings it generates can appreciate these sections. And as a result Eastman is a fully developed, and sympathetic, character
The other aspect that makes this work interesting is the running commentary on the nature of American society. As the CEO of Dezenhall Resources, one of the nation’s leading crisis management firms, the author clearly has had a lot of interaction with both the public and the media and it shows in his writing. Sprinkled frequently throughout the narrative are mini-monologues about how American’s think and interact with politicians, celebrities, and the media in general. Here is just a small example:
Contemporary Southerners did not, of course, support slavery, but they didn’t like losing the Civil War either. As the generations passed, any hope of restoring the Lost Cause receded, but something else remained, coursing beneath the surface of the proud society: The specter of arrogant Yankees laughing at them, judging them, inflicting their progressive thoughts on them.
These little running commentaries aren’t insightful in a life changing way, but they add an interesting element of cultural commentary to the novel.
It is somewhat ironic that the thread I enjoyed the least was, in theory, the main plot. The contemporary activities that make up the “spinning of Dixie” are just a little too convoluted for my taste. They come off almost as a side show. Dezenhall has a highly attuned sense of the absurdity of American culture and media and so the plot isn’t so much unbelievable as a little thin or disconnected. These sections just didn’t have the punch that the flashback scenes did. Events seem to tumble one after the other without clear rationales. Sure some are funny and over the top, but I found them rather ho-hum in aggregate.
The interesting thing is that the book didn’t really suffer that much as a result. For me anyways, Dezenhall’s descriptions of love at seventeen and his constant pop culture references and commentary kept me reading and made the book enjoyable. So what if the plot was a little thin in parts and some of the characters were stereotypes? Rare is the author that can get every aspect of a novel just right.
I haven’t read any of Dezenhall’s previous books, including those with Eastman as a character, but Spinning Dixie has piqued my interest enough that I think I will go back and check them out. If you enjoy fast paced, comic thrillers, with a good dose of cultural references I recommend you do the same.