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It's Gary Phillips' World

BSC Review
July 31, 2009

2009 is the year of Gary Phillips. A spate of releases confirms what some already know, that its Gary’s world and the rest of us just live in it. The different releases offer a range of voices in a range of styles in a range of mediums.

The Jook

Zelmont Raines has slid a long way since his ability to jook, to out maneuver his opponents on the field, made him a Super Bowl winning wide receiver, earning him lucrative endorsement deals and more than his share of female attention. But Zee hasn’t always been good at saying no, so a series of missteps involving drugs, a paternity suit or two, legal entanglements, shaky investments and recurring injuries have virtually sidelined his career.

That is until Los Angeles gets a new pro franchise, the Barons, and Zelmont has one last chance at the big time he dearly misses. Just as it seems he might be getting back in the flow, he’s enraptured by Wilma Wells, the leggy and brainy lawyer for the team–who has a ruthless game plan all her own. And it’s Zelmont who might get jooked.

The Jook was originally published in 1999 and is being reprinted by Switchblade, the new imprint of PM Press.

Yes, as Nerd pointed out already, one of the main hooks (and the thing you notice immediately) is the voice. Too often fiction told in a first person POV lacks a distinct voice but Zelmont Raines has a rhythm and style that is all his own. And quite frankly it is a rhythm that we don’t often hear in crime fiction; the rhythm of black men. I would partly attribute this to Gary Phillips’ unabashed acknowledgement of the so-called street lit books as an influence, maybe not the current 50-Cent crop of books but certainly the classics (Iceberg Slim, Robert Deane Pharr) and to the influence of Chester Himes.

If the black man is lacking from crime fiction then the black woman is absent. As black woman have come to dominate the world of street lit they have been largely absent from crime fiction and if crime fiction readers aren’t aware of the dynamics of the experiences felt by characters like Gena (True to the Game) and Winter (The Coldest Winter Ever) then they should be. This is a round about way of saying that Wilma Wells, the prime female lead in The Jook is a breath of fresh air. She’s smart, she’s sexual, she never veers into femme fatale territory and she dominates the men by being better then them at everything. The Jook of the title is just as much her move as anyone else’s in the story.

Part of Phillips’ strength, and what sets him apart from the others, is that he has taken an influence that others don’t have and married it with the traditional crime novel to come up with something else.

High Rollers

High Rollers is a graphic novel by Gary Phillips from Boom! Comics. The story is of the rising through the criminal organization ranks variety. The story is crisp and well told with some interesting characters. Some of the art didn’t work for me, achieving a rotoscopic (I guess) type effect that looks, at times, overly cartoonish. My only complaint is that the story just ends, leaving the reader with a feeling that the story is incomplete. This will be easily resolved if there are future issues/volumes with these characters I just don’t know if that is the case or not.

***

In addition to a dark crime fiction noir and a rise-to-power comic Gary Phillips also has a standout story in the anthology Black Noir called The House of Tears and a historical novel about black soldiers in World War II called Freedom’s Flight.

Bottom line: Gary Phillips is one of the best kept secrets in crime fiction.

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