Marcus Guillory’s exceptional debut novel, Red Now And Laters, resembles the precious horn riffs of the great Creole jazz saxophonist Sidney Bechet in its rich, improvised language and cultural themes. As a native of Louisiana, the former entertainment attorney-musician now lives in Los Angeles, using most of the ingredients of well-lived legacy in its narrative, including zydeco, horse racing and rodeo, hoodoo, the legal world, and higher education.
With a penetrating eye on the complexity and complications of the Creole-speaking, heritage-proud Boudreaux clan, now thriving in the black neighborhood of South Park, Houston, Guillory provides his readers with a fictional gift in Ti’ John, aka John Paul Boudreaux, as the narrator for the sometimes comic, often disturbing, but always entertaining antics of his bloodline.
The product of a Hoodoo traditionalist father and a devout Catholic mother, he knows he has the power, an uncommon skill of spiritual healing, to make things whole, to transform disease to wholesome health.
Ti’ John’s mother, Patrice Boudreaux, is not only “a cautious woman,” but her protective manner tries to shield her rebellious boy away from the bad guys. She’s one of Guillory’s prime characters, a woman battling for her soul against sin and lust while trying to remain faithful to the saints.
The boy’s moral conflicts reflect her strict, religious dogma and his father’s love of the outlaw life, including horses, dice, and good time gals. Everywhere you look, there are memorable sentences, fragments, and phrases, like this one: “She wanted to be closer to God, which is understandable considering she was probably fucking Satan.”
On the other hand, John Frenchy’ father towers over the book as a hell-raising black rodeo star, dabbler in Creole healing arts, rambling womanizer, with a knack for the lasso, bullwhip, pistol, knives, and spit. Ti’ John worshipped him. He looked up to his iconic Papa for life lessons in the rough-and-touch science of manhood and masculinity. Notable are the various scenes of the black rodeo, the cowboys, and the tense battles between man and beast.
Like any one of the black communities under severe financial and mental siege, Guillory paints the customary portrait of his citizens at a crisis point. “People were now more restless,” he writes with a poetic flourish. “Murmurs and prayers gently recited in the daylight became loud, exacerbated curses and fevered threats in the evening’s shadow. Gunshots rang out sporadically. Sirens howled, echoing off the black water into the purple sky. Night had arrived. And niggas act up at night.” This grim scenario emerges in most of the embattled neighborhoods after the sunset.
The issue of time is a fluid matter for Guillory. Wielding a crafty pen and descriptive vignettes, the author chronicles the bloodline of the Boudreaux family through the combative Reconstruction era of the 1870s, through the harsh Jim Crow years, to the reactionary Reagan period of the 1980s. His use of significant historic, political, and cultural detail is distinctive, capturing the highlights of the clan struggling to make productive lives for themselves and their offspring.
When Guillory blends family drama and the supernatural, the novel takes flight, entering the natural rhythms of time and place like the aforementioned Bechet’s 1924 anthem, “Texas Moaner Blues,” with the trumpet titan Satchmo, or the powerful 1940 ditty, “Dear Old Southland.” Its collective clout in its depiction of myth and magic is akin to folklorist Zora Neale Hurston’s impressive Mules And Men (1935) and Tell My Horse (1938), along with Henry Dumas’ dazzling collections of short fiction, Ark of Bones (1974) and Rope of Wind (1979).
Also, the wide range of characters, both common and uncommon, move through the pages in time in a refreshing manner, human snapshots of long- ago moments or current one, approachable and familiar. At the center of this tapestry is Ti’ John, the one quiet yet reasonable voice, who anchors this tangled, bold, exhilarating fictional world.
As a coming-of-age novel, the boy tries to disengage from the contrary worlds of his parents, and stumbles along his own route to maturity despite the usual challenges of puberty. He is afraid to grow up, but knows it is inevitable. He wants to be a man without the emotional and cultural baggage of the males, including his father and his grandfather. The quest for manhood and adulthood, along with the abundant Louisiana Creole ancestral tree, gives this family saga added heft and majesty that few of the books in this genre accomplish.
Guillory’s beautifully imagined novel, Red Now And Laters, named after a popular candy, makes family history quite riveting with all of its secrets, rumors, tragedies and triumphs. It’s haunting, inventive, wonderfully contrary, and as spellbound as a Creole hant.