Monday, 15 May 2017 – back to Harvey Jackson & the missing Byron McLaughlin

Monday I began reading Harvey Jackson’s The Rise and Decline of the Redneck Riviera again. I’ve been promiscuous in my reading – I’d dropped Jackson in order to read a couple of other things. But I’m glad that I got back to it. Monday I made it from page 83 to page 128.

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When I was kid, we often vacationed @ Panama City Beach in Florida. We always stayed @ the old Wave Crest out in what was properly Sunnyside Beach. The hotel was made of cinderblock painted a light orange-y color and the rooms had kitchenettes with screened-in porches facing the Gulf of Mexico. I can still remember going to sleep back @ the Wave Crest in March 1983, the waves hitting the shore while I tried to watch a USFL football game on TV.

The last time I stayed at the Wave Crest was 1993 and it closed in 1999 after a hurricane. Today’s coastline Panama City is a collection of skyscrapers that would be right at home in Manhattan. Things change…

***
The only aspect of Redneck that I don’t like is hinted at by the title. The words “redneck riviera” to describe the northern Gulf Coast allegedly originated with a New York Times article by native Alabaman Howell Raines in the late 1970s. Jackson chose these words for his title and makes constant references to rednecks and “redneckery” throughout the book.

In my humble opinion, the constant use of the word “redneck” is in questionable taste. Through its constant use, Jackson projects an ethos of a snob looking down on his social and intellectual inferiors. The use of redneck grabs your attention, but it has unintended consequences.

Jackson is a retired history professor from Alabama’s Jacksonville State University. Fortunately, unlike many academics, he is a talented writer and he keeps the narrative moving.

So far, I’d give Redneck Riviera 8 out of 10.

***

Baseball season is here and I loafed a bit online, looking @ some of the material posted by fans. I found a nice site called hardballtimes.com.

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Hardballtimes.com has a lot of terrific articles. The best one that I read was the unbelievable story of Byron McLaughlin, a former pitcher who fell into a life of counterfeiting and whose current whereabouts are unknown. This is a terrific article if you have a chance to read it –

http://www.hardballtimes.com/byron-mclaughlin-avoids-the-tag/

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Sunday, 14 May 2017 – The Sunday New York Times & Finishing John Safran

Orange Beach to Mobile

Sunday morning I rode over to the local Publix and picked up a copy of the Sunday New York Times. They are full of “Trump angst” @ the NYT, but there were also some negative articles by some conservatives – namely Ross Douthat and Charles Sykes.

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Douthat

The Sykes article was particularly good, noting that Trump isn’t really a conservative, but the fact that he makes a lot of liberals so angry is sufficient for a lot of his followers. We live in interesting times.

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Sykes

***

When we got home in evening, I finished John Safran’s God’ll Cut You Down. It’s not a bad book, but it limped to the finish. Safran has a good 250-page book. The problem is that he wrote 350 pages. I’d give God’ll about a 6/10.

Safran deserves praise for presenting the ambiguities involved in race and in other aspects of our world. He can also be self deprecating in discussing his motives for writing the story and for admitting that he hoped that the story would contain facts that would conform to his preconceived notions.

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Safran (left) with Barrett

But the downside is that there really is no one to cheer for in the book. The murdered segregationist – Richard Barrett – is a “piece of work,” a mysterious, one-in-a-million character but still wholly unlikable. The murderer (Vincent McGee) is young, but in his brief Times outside prison walls had already proven himself a violent felons many times over.

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Vincent McGee

Safran couldn’t overcome Barrett and McGee’s “imperfections.” He was with pages of verbatim quotes from the inarticulate McGee. God’ll Cut You Down is worth a look if you are a “race Trekkie” like Safran (i.e., if you are obsessed with stories involving human enthnicity). But if that’s not a burning interesting, you will find the book the be only mildly interesting.

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Saturday, 13 May 2017 – More in John Safran’s God’ll Cut You Down

Saturday I continued to read John Safran’s God’ll Cut You Down. I made it from page 161 to page 302. Unfortunately, I thought that the book started to fall off, it just wasn’t as good. The case takes some turns that Safran didn’t expect. On the one hand, the twists drive home the point that nonfiction doesn’t follow a script, which makes it more interesting – in many cases – than is fiction.

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However, Safran doesn’t quite know how to deal with the ever-shifting story. He records his phone conversations with the murderer (Vincent McGee). Unfortunately, McGee isn’t articulate and Safran doesn’t know when to stop quoting and use short summaries instead. Still, on the whole, God’ll Cut You Down is good; I’d give it 7/10 so far.

***

I also read a couple of articles from Businessweek (Bloomberg Businessweek, if you want to be precise). I’d left an old copy (from December 19-25th) out here when we visited in the fall. The cover story was on the alleged manipulation of U.S. Import laws by Asian shrimpers. Businessweek alleges that much of the shrimp entering the U.S. Is unsafe. The article might be a bit technical for the layperson, but it was interesting to read it while looking @ the Gulf of Mexico.

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The story is here –

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2016-12-15/how-antibiotic-tainted-seafood-from-china-ends-up-on-your-table

***

Just before we left Mobile Friday, the mail arrived and I got the new copy of Businessweek. The current cover story is about the alleged murder of an Indian-American engineer (Srinivas Kuchibotla) by a disaffected white American. The story is interesting, but it reminds me of the old saying that journalism is the first draft of history. We don’t know the motives or inspiration for the alleged murder. Also, we don’t know whether anti-immigrant crimes will become increasingly common. Having said that, I think that the article provides good food for thought.

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The story is here –

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2017-05-11/what-an-immigrant-murder-in-kansas-says-about-america

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Friday, 12 May 2017 – John Safran’s God’ll Cut You Down & The Pittsburgh Penguins’ “Knitting Lady”

Before we left for the beach Friday evening, I tried to catch up my Wall Street Journals. Papers from the last 4-5 days were junking up our den and my wife does NOT like clutter, so I knew it was time to get them out of the way.

The best article that I read was a human interest story on a woman named Michelle Miller who is an ardent Pittsburgh Penguins hockey fan. She buys the premium ($600) seats down by the glass and spends the entire game knitting. Because of her good seats, she’s often on TV and has become a minor celebrity. People are infinitely interesting and the ways that we choose to spend our leisure time are particularly revealing.

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Michelle Miller

By the time we left for the beach, our den was Journal free.

***

We rode out to the beach in the evening. It took a while to make it out. Before bed, we needed to unwind, and I got read a bit more in John Safran’s God’ll Cut You Down. The book is really good. Safran is getting deeper into the murder of white supremacist Richard Barrett and he’s finding out that the truth is slippery. I particularly enjoyed reading about the material that Safran found in Barrett’s FBI file.

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John Safran

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Thursday, 11 May 2017

At night, I needed another book. So, I settled on God’ll Cut You Down by John Safran. It’s about an Australian journalist who gets tangled up in the mess over the murder of a white supremacist in Mississippi. So far, it’s really good.

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Interestingly, I also got a comment on an old review that I’d posted on the blog about O’Neil D’Noux’s true-crime book (Specific Intent) about a murder in Louisiana. One of the deputies who was involved in the case – made a comment and said that many of the problems with the book were the result of the insistence of the editor.

The review and the comments are here –

https://mobilemojoman.wordpress.com/2013/05/21/book-review-specific-intent-by-oneil-de-noux/

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Review – Hall of Mirrors by Robert Stone

  • Hall of Mirrors
  • by Robert Stone
  • Publisher – Houghton, Mifflin
  • Copyrights – 1964, 1966
  • 409 pages

Rating – 6.5/10

Summary – Hall of Mirrors is Robert Stone’s first attempt at The Great American Novel. Set in New Orleans in the 1960s, the novel centers on three seekers who become enmeshed in a toxic brew of right-wing politics, racism, and religion. Stone falls short of his ambitions, but there are some nice passages and there’s plenty of food for thought.

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Review –   Robert Stone uses 1960s New Orleans as the setting for Hall of Mirrors, which is an interesting “big novel” about America’s obsessions.

Seekers Without Maps

3 people are at the core of Hall of Mirrors – 

1) Rheinhardt is the focus. He’s an alcoholic, itinerant disc jockey who drifts into a homeless mission at Hall’s beginning. Soon, he finds himself working again as a d.j. At a radio station (WUSA) that is enmeshed in nefarious, right-wing plots.

Rheinhardt is largely bereft of hope. But Stone provides a flashback that reveals that Rheinhardt was once a promising clarinetist who auditioned at Juilliard –

“…they said that every five years or so he [Somlio, the man for whom Rheinhardt is auditioning] might take a clarinet.

It was a bright October day, the room was full of sunlight. Somlio, pale and fat, came in with his four musicians, treacherous and bitter little men, they said, who liked to lead you down the glory road and then leave you impaled on a transition, drowning in spit and clinkers. Somlio had to hear all his woodwinds in company with that quartet.

One by one – first and second fiddle, viola, cello – they seated themselves on folding chairs and set up, while Rheinhardt nervously tootled and kept changing reeds. Then Somlio gestured from his seat and the swings welled with what seemed a sudden violence and went into the opening bar of the theme, the ten notes that sounded like “East Side, West Side.” And Rheinhardt, fifteen seconds from his ordeal, looked across the street to the rocky vacant lots where the Harlem housing projects were going up and little Puerto Rican kids were throwing rocks at a cement truck, turned, feeling nothing at all, picked up on G and performed the first arpeggio.

Then came the repeat passages, the first line over again and the strings came in pure symmetry and logic – the fiddles working down, the cello and viola rising, concerned only with themselves, ignoring him – and Rheinhardt sounded again his lonely, unregarded arpeggio that floated unwelcome above the richness of the strings. But in the third line, he could feel them yielding, playing gently with his theme, then taking it up, and he and the strings were rising and falling together in bright harmonies; he making love to the strings, cowing them, fondling them, they ignored him no longer.

So it turned out that morning that just above the barrier of form was a world of sunlight in which he could soar and caper with an eagle’s freedom, rule and dispense passion, where his breath was the instrument of infinite invention, yet not a pause was lost – not a note. He was not going to make any mistakes that morning; he found himself in control as he had never before been. Because there was perfection in this music, something of God in this music, a divine thing in it – and the hungry coiled apparatus in Rheinhardt was hounding it down with a deadly instinct, finding it again and again.

By the time they came to the trio in the Menuetto third movement where Mozart had taken out the clarinet to give old Stadler, who was playing fo his pension, a minute or two of rest, Rheinhardt, standing with his eyes closed, fingers trembling on the stops, felt the silence of the room behind the strings and felt the strings themselves loving and missing him. He opened his eyes to see the cellist bent low over his strings; the man’s eyes were bright with love, and as his fingers moved tenderly across the board his upturned wrist displayed the five blue characters where they had taken that caressing arm and tattooed on it – DK 412. Just before Rheinhardt picked up on his next note the old man had turned expectantly toward him and with the rapture of and tenderness still shining in his face and Rheinhardt had caught that transfigured look and held it, and begun again.

At the end, in the final passage allegro alla breve he could feel himself – the brain , mouth, diaphgram, lungs and fingers of the musician Rheinhardt fused together in a terrible invincible unity. And as he and the strings came down together in the last lovely tremolo, he had thought – how beautiful, how beautiful I am!

Joyful and trembling, he had put his axe away and gone over to shake hands with the quartet, hoping that they they would say something, but they did not – they smiled and nodded and packed their instruments and went.

“Tell me again,” Somlio had said, looking at his own fingernails, “what name?”

“Rheinhardt, maestro.”

“Bien, Rheinhardt,” Somlio had said casually and shrugged. “Of the first. Of the first excellence. We accept Rheinhardt”  (Pp. 45-47).

But for the part about “making love to the strings,” I think that the passage is perfect, beautiful. What makes it remarkable in Hall is that it stands in such stark contrast to almost everything else the reader learns about the hard-bitten Rheinhardt. The passage redeems Rheinhardt, makes the reader care about him.

2) Morgan Rainey – seems to be Rheinhardt’s opposite (but the reader eventually realizes that the two men are opposite sides of the same coin). A young Harvard graduate from Louisiana, Rainey has been to Venezuela to work in its slums. In New Orleans, Rainey takes a job interviewing welfare recipients and gets a harsh lesson in the real world. Often, Rainey comes across as the classic liberal do gooder – pure of heart, but ineffectual.

In one scene, Rainey and Rheinhardt interact in a French Quarter apartment. Their dialogue reveals each man’s struggles and Hall’s themes –

“What happened to you, Rheinhardt?” Rainey asked.

“Rainey,” Rheinhardt said, “are you so childish-foolish that you don’t know a prick when you see one?”

“I know a prick when I see one. I don’t believe you’re such a prick that you’re … that you have no humanity. I don’t know why.” He looked about him as though for escape. “If I thought that I wouldn’t have asked you to help me. As far as I can see you’re the only one who can tell me what I need to know” (p. 251).

Ostensibly, the two men are discussing the right-wing plots emanating from WUSA, where Rheinhardt works. But a different interpretation would be that the older Rheinhardt has seen things about life that Rainey feels that he should know.

3) Geraldine – If Rheinhardt and Rainey are mirror images, Geraldine is unique. At the beginning, she gets a car ride to New Orleans with a Mexican laborer. She is on the run from a violent lover in Galveston who sliced her face, leaving her scarred. Upon arriving in New Orleans, various men approach her and try to use her sexually (which is exactly what one would expect in Stone’s heartless world). Eventually, Geraldine meets Rheinhardt on the job and the two become lovers.

In comparison with Rheinhardt and Rainey, Geraldine’s wounds are both literal and psychic. And yet, in contrast with the two men, she never seems to have dreamed “big dreams.” Geraldine’s “everywoman” persona makes the reader like her all the more, cheering for her success.

Unfortunately, Geraldine never quite works in Hall. She isn’t woven into the plot as well as are the two male characters. Her scenes are good, but the plot threads involving Geraldine seem forced, almost as though Stone felt that he had to include a female lead but didn’t know what to do with her character.

3 R’s – Themes

To me, Hall centers on three themes –

1) Religion – Stone’s view of religion is elitist – it’s just a sham, used to fleece people and keep them in line. Stone handles religion unimaginatively in Hall; there’s a never a moment that makes the reader think “Ah! I never thought of it that way.”

Typical of Hall’s treatment of religion is a scene at Hall’s beginning. Shortly after Rheinhardt arrives in New Orleans, he spends the night in a homeless shelter and runs into an old acquaintance from New York. The man is a religious huckster who is on the run for various unsavory actions.

2) Race – is a topic on which Stone had more-interesting insight. In the novel, Rainey ventures into the black community, conducting a survey of welfare clients. (According to online sources, Stone had a similar job – helping collect information in New Orleans for the 1960 U.S. Census).

Rainey meets two, very-different black men. Lester Clotho is an entrepreneur who seems to know everyone in his neighborhoood. Stone makes it clear that – without Clotho – the ingenuous Rainey would be in deep trouble. The reader senses that there is much that Clotho does not tell Rainey.

While working with Clotho, Rainey meets Roosevelt Berry, a younger black man who works as a journalist at a black-owned newspaper. Berry dislikes Clotho, seeing him as an Uncle Tom. Rainey is intrigued by Berry’s hard-edged politics.

In Clotho and Berry, Stone crafts two characters who represent the old and new approaches to civil rights that would soon divide the black community in the 1960s.

3) Right-wing politics – the first two themes are “ingredients” in the third. As the three protagonists attempt to find their way, each falls into a sinister right-wing plot to start a race riot at a rally in a New Orleans stadium.

The idea is interesting, but Stone doesn’t quite pull it off. He breaks the book’s realism by mocking the right wingers as a bunch of cartoonish villains would have been at home in an old Batman episode. At the rally, Rheinhardt’s old acquaintance, the disgraced preacher from New York, offers the following prayer –

“Lord, let your divine protection descend on this small embattled band of Christians. Sustain us in the face of the Darkness Outside. For we know that beyond our little circle of Light in the night’s gloom there throbs a black and evil world of subversion and intrigue which constantly threatens our innocence and wholesomeness to strike down the foulness that rises daily at our feet as we pursue the righteous way. Defend us from the contamination which suffuses our newspapers and magazines, our libraries and so called institutions of learning, which lurks disguised as mere frivolity in our entertainments. Keep us as we are – simple upright men unconfused by the devious rhetoric of ever-present anti-Christ. Bless our innocence Lord, let it ascend heavenward as a sweet odor in tribute to Yourself. Protect and arm us before the black forces of blackness who daily blacken our clear path with their black menace. Amen.” (P. 335).

I think that the passage is funny, and it brings together Stone’s themes – religion, race, and right-wing politics. The problem with Hall’s conclusion is that – after 300 pages of fairly-serious material, Stone lets the book become a farce. The shift in tone is jarring and largely unsuccessful. Stone wasn’t even thirty-years old when he published Hall and perhaps he was still maturing both as a person and as a writer.

While the ending isn’t satisfying, it’s not an abject failure, either. Stone ties a lot of threads together. However, he also makes clear that – in our cruel world – any successes are likely to be rare, temporary and uninspiring.

Leaving New Orleans

If you’re a writer, trying to write The Great American Novel is like trying to find Nirvana – you know you’re going to fall short, but you can’t help making the effort. Indeed, Stone would try again with his 1974 novel Dog Soldiers, which more successfully captured the zeitgeist. (Dog Soldiers won the National Book Award and was adapted into the 1978 movie Who’ll Stop the Rain?). For those interested in Stone’s work, Dog Soldiers is the place to start.

As for Hall, it’s a middling success, a bleak look at beaten people who have given up or are in the process of giving up. But Stone had his finger on America’s pulse and the issues that he explored still resonate today.

 

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Book Review – Mondo Mandingo by Paul Talbot

  • Mondo Mandingo – The “Falconhurst” Books and Films
  • by Paul Talbot
  • Publisher – iUniverse, Inc. 
  • Copyright 2009
  • 266 pages (+ 6 Appendices, Bibliography, & Index)

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Rating – 7.5 / 10

Summary – Race is America’s obsession. The Mandingo books and films captured attention by discussing race in a strange form of popular entertainment that engaged the public for about 30 years. Author Paul Talbot discusses this phenomenon in his good book Mondo Mandingo.

Review – Back in the 1960s and 1970s, the James Bond films enjoyed great popularity. People said that the secrets of 007’s success was simple – the films were filled with sex and violence. If sex and violence made Bond a hit, then the Falconhurst books and films should have been even bigger because they focused on the all-American trifecta – sex, violence, AND race.

The idea behind the Falconhurst books was to set the work at a plantation during the days of slavery. Then create a plot that centered around interracial sex and horrific acts of violence. It wasn’t complex, but it sure got people’s attention – especially, the interracial sex part. The Falconhurst works probably won’t ever quality as a great art, but the phenomenon is quite interesting.

Kyle Onstott (1887-1966)

Back in the 1950s, as the United States slowly turned its attention to civil rights, an eccentric named Kyle Onstott began drafting a novel titled Mandingo. Onstott was an intriguing character – independently wealthy, he spent his life as a dilettante, often indulging his passion for breeding dogs. Somehow, Onstott became intrigued by the stories he’d heard about plantation life in the 1800s.

Following his obsession, Onstott finished his novel and published it to surprising success. Prior to Mandingo’s publication, no one could have envisioned the series’ success. (Falconhurst is the name of the plantation in many of the novels).

For all of his success, Onstott quickly faded from the scene. In Mondo Mandingo, author Paul Talbot states that Onstott wrote only the initial Mandingo novel. Authors Lance Horner and Harry Whittington (who used the pen name Ashley Carter) stepped in to fill in the rest of the series. The Mandingo series would total fourteen novels published over thirty-one years (1957-1988).

The Mandingo Books

Interestingly, Talbot writes that Onstott didn’t even write the best version of his own Mandingo novelTalbot considers the unabridged version of Mandingo to be overly long and burdened by digressions that read nowhere. (Having attempted to read the unabridged version of Mandingo, I share his opinion).

Talbot’s discussion of the Mandingo books covers only about the first 75 pages of Mondo Mandingo. But this section has some of the book’s best material. Onstott’s biography is terrific reading and there are a number of other good war stories. For instance, Talbot suggests that the second author of the Mandingo books, Lance Horner, was poisoned to death in 1973 by his male lover (who hoped to inherit Horner’s estate).

If there’s a downside to this section, it’s that it can be hard to follow. The Mandingo series contains so many sequels and prequels that the reader’s head spins while trying to follow Talbot’s plot summaries. This isn’t Talbot’s fault, because there isn’t a neat, linear story in the Mandingo novels.

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Back cover

A 1961 Play

The Broadway play was a disaster and ran for just eight shows after its previews ended. The play came about mainly because – given the social mores of the time – there was no other suitable medium for a Mandingo adaptation. Talbot’s account of the play is relatively short (covering pages 77 – 98), but it has a few nice pieces of information.

For instance, Talbot quotes extensively from the negative reviews and discusses the casting decisions. Cast members included –

  • James Caan (who was fired after four rehearsals),
  • Dennis Hopper (who replaced Caan),
  • Brooke Hayward,
  • and former boxer Rockne Tarkington (who played the slave, Mede).

Two Movies – Mandingo (1975) and Drum (1976) 

Talbot’s discussion of the movies Mandingo and Drum takes up the bulk of Mondo Mandingo (pages 95-222). Fortunately, these sections are where the book is strongest. I’m much more of a reader than a movie goer, but I really enjoyed learning how a motion picture moves from the idea stage to the final product. In the case of both films, there were many false starts, stops, and changes along the way. Talbot makes all of this interesting.

Readers will enjoy Talbot’s extensive interviews with those who worked on Drum and Mandingo. Heavyweight boxer Ken Norton starred in both films and offers readers some good insight. Talbot also interviewed Steve Carver, who directed Drum (after the producers fired the original director, George Kennedy). Carver explains what it is like to take over a film and try to make changes in a limited time.

As with the Broadway play, Talbot did in-depth research on critics’ and audiences’ reactions to the two movies. The critics were scathing, but audiences were kinder. In their interviews, many of the actors are defensive about their participation in the films; several state that they think that the critics were too harsh.

Misses – What Could Have Been Better

While I really enjoyed Mondo Mandingo, the book has some weaknesses. It can be difficult to follow in places. For instance, Talbot often includes over-long lists of everyone who was involved in the movies. Likewise, the discussions of the Falconhurst novels tend to run together. Some simple editing (including more subheadings and moving some of the long lists into the appendices) would have made the book more readable.

Another negative is that Mondo Mandingo closes on a weak note. The final chapter (pages 223-266) focuses on other “slave-sploitation” films that grew out of the success of Mandingo. This material is interesting, but it diverts attention from the book’s main focus, which is supposed to be the Mandingo phenomena. (Talbot also includes some discussion of the many series of books that were inspired by Mandingo’s success). Mondo Mandingo just “dead stops” after this last chapter; Talbot should have at least given his readers a one-page parting shot.

Find Your Own Answers

Talbot may not offer any conclusions, but he doesn’t push an agenda, either. You will have to find the answers for yourself. My take is that Mandingo’s success – and that of all of its many spinoffs – is a case of popular entertainment outdoing “deeper” works. Highbrow critics hated the Mandingo films, but the highbrows offered few works about race that engaged people on main street.

Mondo Mandingo’s a one-of-a-kind book that offers insight the American psyche and into the worlds of publishing and movies. Readers meet a number of interesting people along the way. The book is well worth a look.

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