Fuse #8

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Review of the Day: Porch Lies - Tales of Slicksters, Tricksters, and Other Wily Characters

On an eight by ten sheet of paper, please explain the distinction between slicksters, tricksters and wily characters using examples of each kind to support your conjectures. You have (looks at the clock) five minutes. Go.

That, if you were a teacher of diabolical means and methods, would be one way of collecting a list of ne’er do wells for your own personal collection. To be frank, though, I wouldn’t recommend it. You’d have far more luck if you happened to find yourself in the presence of Patricia McKissack’s remarkable, “Porch Lies” and had the wherewithal to snatch it up right quick. Ms. McKissack has always been consistently good, consistently interesting, and blessed with an ear for African-American storytelling and vernacular. Rejoice then when I tell you that her latest venture is a pip. Wonderful to read, both to oneself and aloud to an audience, these are tales that demand to be heard. Hear them then and be content, cause you’ll seldom find the like again.

To hear Ms. McKissack tell it, the place to be when she was a child of Nashville, Tennessee was not in the playgrounds or movie theaters of the city but on the porch of 3706 Centennnial. There, Patricia would spend her happy days listening as her grandparents, their friends, and some acquaintances reminisced about some "true" characters they had known in their day. Culling together all the best slickster-trickster tales she knew, McKissack recounts these characters after having processed them from her grandfather’s “models” into 9 (or 10, depending on how you count) wholly new and original porch lies. Each story in this book is preceded by a small reminiscence of the person who was telling that tale and how they’d think to tell it in the first place. Then the real fun starts. We see poor Clovis Reed having his soul weighed against a feather and James Booker Black outwitting the devil for his own soul. We see Mingo Cass outwit a whole barbershop full of men and, in my personal favorite, sweet Dooley Hunter tell the greatest lie ever told. Every tale is recounted with a familiar feel but stands as its own original story on closer inspection. To read the book is to relax into the story and feel that you yourself are swinging on a porch swing, hearing the tales told on a breezy summer night.

The range of stories really make it worth a reader’s while as well. You’ve got your tall tales alongside your moral ones. You’ve lovable scalawags and the not-so-lovable prigs that find them a nuisance. The gullible exist here alongside the exceedingly clever (but lazy). Ms. McKissack's wordplay is just lovely as well. Who can resist a line like, “Cooley was a one-of-a-kind in a one-size-fits-all world”? Each story rolls trippingly off the tongue, demanding that a person read it aloud to someone. Could be to a family member or a classroom. It doesn’t matter who, really. Everyone can find something in this book to get a kick out of. And it’s all thanks, in part, to Ms. McKissack’s powerful grasp on the English language.

The problem with this book, if problem you can call it, is that it has a tendency to seep into a person’s daily life. For example, I recently attended a fantastic performance of August Wilson’s play, “Seven Guitars”. Not ten minutes into the show, I found myself looking at characters that could’ve leapt from the pages of McKissack’s book for all that they embodied the true spirit of tricksterism. Still, it's fun to read Ms. McKissack’s tales and see little elements that may have cropped up in your own experience. For example, when we hear about Robert Johnson who sold his soul for success at the Crossroads, I suddenly remembered the film “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?”, and the man in it who suffered the same fate. Or there’s the moment when Clovis Reed’s bedroom turns into a courtroom and his soul stands on trial. Sound like any old movies you may have seen in the past? Ms. McKissack isn’t above giving the small shout-out to her own books as well. When she says, “Papa Jack’s porch lies were usually about little girls who outsmarted foxes or captured the wind”, you’d have to be fairly out of it (or simply uninformed) not to pick up on this obvious reference.

To be honest, had I thought about pairing this author's words alongside computer-animated figures the very notion of it would have straightened my hair. I could be forgiven for my ignorance in this manner, however, since artist Andre Carrilho is new to the world of children’s book illustration. His style is one-of-a-kind and I don’t know who the genius was who thought to pair him with Ms. McKissack, but the words “match made in heaven” have a tendency to pop up when the two are involved. Each story gets just one illustration, which is a true pity. Fortunately, the pics are so good that you instantly forgive the author his miserly tendencies. The range of depth and light is impressive, yes. But even better is the fact that parts of these illustrations appear to also be hand-drawn. And these elements seem to fit in seamlessly with the rest of the picture as a whole. There sits Mingo Cass getting his shoes shined and as you can see, his socks, the cloth on his foot, and the shoeshine boy’s shirt appear to be drawn the old-fashioned way. A couple pages in and Cake Norris is being glared at by an angel with thin-lined wings. There’s an arch and a lengthy curve to each picture that somehow manages to convey both movement and realism while remaining clearly drawn. I don't think Mr. Carrilho could work this well if he were to illustrate an entire picture book. Here, however, his skills have been used to their best advantage.

To be honest, there’s no good reason in the whole wide world why you shouldn’t already own a copy of this book. It’s one of those titles you hold up and feel like you should have bought years and years ago, even if it’s just been published. No excuses allowed. Purchase forthwith.

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