Enter the Librarian, a review by Josh Hanagarne
For me, reading God’ll Cut You Down: The Tangled Tale of a White Supremacist, a Black Hustler, a Murder, and How I Lost a Year in Mississippi by John Safran was like the literary equivalent of watching Borat. I experienced both thinking “How does someone have the nerve to do this stuff?” In the case of Borat, “this stuff” refers to Sasha Baron Cohen’s ability to make people uncomfortable for laughs. In the case of God’ll Cut You Down, “this stuff” refers to a sort of journalistic courage (madness?) that I could never muster.
Safran, an Australian documentary maker, refers to himself as a “race Trekkie.” Have you ever seen a Trekkie? They’re the Star Trek fans who can quote you the chapter, verse, and sound editor for every episode. And when they do so, they’re probably in costume. Safran’s obsession is more serious and comes with fewer bits of trivia: he fixates on stories about race.
Early in the book, we see him at a podium, announcing to a group of Aryan-inclined youth that the white supremacist (Richard Barrett) dignitary in attendance actually has African DNA. He is a provocateur, yes, but also a gifted storyteller. He’ll be the first to tell you that he has a lot of enemies who don’t appreciate his methods.
I won’t spoil the particulars for you, but soon, he impulsively finds himself far from Australia. He lands in Mississippi. Richard Barrett has been murdered. Despite not knowing how to write a true crime book, but being a fan of John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, he decides he might as well try to go solve the mystery and write about it.
He’s greeted by a billboard featuring John Grisham and William Faulkner that says, “Yes, we can read. A few of us can even write.”
And so begins a fast paced, hilarious, and disturbing tale of murder and racism in the Deep South. I don’t know that I’ve ever laughed harder about a book with so much dark, grisly, serious subject matter. Safran is funny and he knows it. But this is a book about death, and white supremacy, and journalism, and venomous strands of racism that are alive and well in the hearts of far too many people. A black man has murdered a white supremacist in Klan country, and there may be a white woman involved. Perhaps even some homosexuality. It’s a perfect setup for an unbearable tension belied by the mood of the writing style.
But, back to the nerves of the author. Safran loves to snoop around. He loves to meet characters that sound dangerous and are probably not in the mood to help him. He seems happiest when he’s about to get caught doing something he shouldn’t, in a place where he shouldn’t be. I couldn’t do it, and that was the real gift of this book for me: it took me to a world I had no experience with. The world of the intrepid, perhaps too brash, reporter.
There’s also a lot of charm in the fact that Safran doesn’t always know what he’s doing. It’s hard not to admire audacity, and it’s hard not to laugh when that audacity causes most of the subsequent problems that could have been avoided. I’d have packed up and given up long before the conclusion of the book. I wouldn’t have been brave enough to try to sneak into someone’s garage for a look.
I’d recommend this most highly for fans of Jon Ronson, true crime, John Berendt, Mary Roach, and Deborah Blum. There might be a little Hunter S. Thompson in there as well.