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 on stage 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 fourteen, that he'd defeated the middleweight boxing champion of Alaska, that he'd fathered seventy-five illegitimate children.
The R&B wildman Screamin' Jay Hawkins only had 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.
Binelli's (Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die!) second novel is a loose retelling of the life of R&B and shock-rock singer Screamin' Jay Hawkins. In no particular order and from various points of view, the author recounts the many episodes in Hawkins's life, from which myths were eventually made. We hear of Hawkins's childhood with foster parents, whom Hawkins later reimagines as a tribe of Blackfoot Indians, and of his school days and brief obsession with opera. The musician does a stint in the military (he may have been as young as 14), becomes a boxer in Alaska, and does time in prison (for murder, or was it possession of narcotics and statutory rape?). Hawkins talks with a ghost and claims to have sired 75 illegitimate children, who gather for a family reunion after his death. He confesses to an uncanny fear he developed of his renowned gag: arriving on stage in a closed coffin, which he did so many times that he began to believe it was an omen. We never know for sure whether was really so drunk he couldn't remember recording the song for which he is most famous, "I Put a Spell on You." Thematically, this strange book might be best summed up in a line from Hawkins: "It's not that you want to write songs that last forever. It's about wanting to make yourself so special, so alien a presence in the square world, you won't have to live or die by its rules."