An Australian in the Dark Heart of Mississippi

Book review: God’ll Cut You Down, by John Safran

In this tornado of a book, Australian TV and radio personality John Safran chronicles his obsession with a Southern American murder case involving the death of a white supremacist at the hands of a young black man in Mississippi. That’s the basic premise, but the paths that the story takes from there are pretty extraordinary.

Safran had a comedy documentary series called Race Relations, and for a segment he traveled to Mississippi to pull a prank on a man named Richard Barrett, a lawyer/notorious white supremacist, confronting him with proof of Barrett’s African DNA. The segment ultimately never aired thanks to Barrett’s litigiousness, but Safran became fascinated by the complicated race relations of the Deep South.

So he was shocked and intrigued when he heard that Barrett had been murdered by a black man. He returned to Jackson, Mississippi to cover the trial. Inspired by the likes of John Berendt, author of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (a national treasure of a book) he begins digging around Jackson before the trial, cozying up to the neighbors, family members and the case’s major players. “That’s what I learned from ‘Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil’Arrive early and befriend the local yahoos.”

It’s tough here because the local yahoos are slightly more tight-lipped than those in Berendt’s Savannah, and all told they’re less eccentric, too. The rich personality of Savannah was a gift to that story, and Jackson doesn’t captivate like Savannah. Nevertheless, Safran’s smartly goofy style picks up the slack. Despite a lot of cold shoulders and mistrust, he’s able to infiltrate somewhat, including gaining the confidence of the murderer himself with the help of some Walmart cash cards.

This man, Vincent McGee, is a tough subject. He’s a hustler, only sporadically providing shaky details of the night of the murder and the murky extent of his relationship to Barrett in exchange for the numbers of the Walmart prepaid cards, needed for some inexplicable business he’s running from inside prison. He reveals a bit here and there, and manages to shape Safran into some semblance of bumbling personal secretary, running his errands on the outside.

I’m not a fan of pranking or stunt TV, even when for documentary purposes, so I was a little skeptical of Safran’s methods. In his earlier stunt for Race Relations, he tried to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan, but admitted he’s Jewish. He mines this kind of stuff throughout, good-naturedly reminding us of his past projects like when flipping through a brand new hotel room Bible:

“I flick the pristine white pages to John 8:44. ‘You belong to your father, the devil.’ Ever since the Grand Dragon quoted that to me, it’s been my fave! ‘You’ is the Jews and John is my name.”

But the pranking/stunts only really played a part in his initial interactions with Barrett, and he does attempt, with recognition of his shortcomings, to become a dedicated true crime and criminal justice journalist for the duration of his project.

He comes with a perspective from the other side of the world, and delves wholeheartedly into what makes a town and its communities tick, making a decent effort to employ investigative methods and find out what’s under the surface of this crime and its catalysts. There’s also humor as he navigates this distinct, special part of America, and we get lines like, “I’m gobbling chicken gizzard nuggets from the gas station.” What a quintessentially American experience.

The race aspect could’ve been more deeply explored; I found it odd that it wasn’t, considering his long-standing interest in that subject. And I didn’t like that much of the dialogue was taken verbatim from Safran’s Dictaphone recordings of conversations, with all the distracting “uhs” “ums” and “you knows” intact. Occasionally there was some comedic effect, but the rest grated.

But the main problem, which I didn’t even realize until the book was finished because once you start reading this thing you just tear through it, was how overwhelmingly sad this whole ordeal was, for everyone involved. Safran flits so quickly from subject to subject, injecting a natural humor and self-deprecating jokiness to everything he does, painting it all so lively that’s it hard to notice right away how depressing it is.

And we end without much of a resolution. For all of the leads that he digs up and tracks down, it’s ultimately all just speculation.

But nevertheless, it’s entertaining, incredibly so. The all-over-the-place tone and story lines ensure it’s never boring for a single sentence. For such a serious and sad topic, it actually came with some laugh-out-loud moments. This passage struck me as so hilarious:

He opens the fat Richard file. I perform yoga contortions with my eyeballs, trying to peek in.
“Out of interest, can I photocopy that or is that private?” I say, trying not sound like a salivating rodent.
“At this point,” Michael says, “since the case hasn’t gone to trial, we can’t release any of the report or anything at this time.”
“I understand,” says the salivating rodent.

And it’s honest – Safran lets those involved speak directly in their own words (you have to read between the speech filler) and we see how twisty and complicated their world is. Even without a well-rounded story, there’s enough fun in the investigation and seeing this world through Safran’s eyes, to make for a compelling read.

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

published November 28, 2014 by Riverhead Books

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