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evanjclark

evanjclark

The Underbrush Is A Little Thick

Minnow - James E. McTeer II

This is a book I really wanted to like. After reading McTeer's family history (his grandfather was both a celebrated lawman and self-described hoodoo practitioner, something he believed necessary to counter the influences of other practitioners in his district,) I was fully prepared for a folklore-heavy modern myth set in South Carolina's sea islands. Basically, a story I'd wanted someone to write for a long time, and the opening pages (as well as the gorgeous cover art) convinced me I'd finally get a rich, dark, hoodoo tale that was less Hollywood and more Zora Neale Hurston, whose Mules and Men is still the high-water mark for Afrocentric American folklore.

 

And then... well, it got slow. Real slow. Like the first several chapters of Lord of the Rings slow, without the epic quest to speed things up. People complain that such fantasy has too much walking, but Minnow, which should have been immune given its short length and concise subject matter, caught that like the plague.

 

Which is not to say there aren't many redeeming aspects. This is absolutely a pretty novel, with prose that never goes full purple but manages to evoke a kind of fairy-tale mystique. And the folklore, when it does appear, is excellent, particularly when it's personified by the antagonistic Dr. Crow. In fact, despite my disappointment, if there is a sequel piece called Crow (or better yet, one entitled Shrike,) I'll pick that up in an instant, because those parts of this novel shined.

 

The problem really was Minnow himself, who seemed content to follow orders and wander into half-hearted adventures. For the first half of the book, Minnow did nothing that convinced me he was a real person instead of an automaton driven by other people's demands. I didn't even buy his quest to fetch medicine for a sick father because I couldn't sense a connection between any of these characters. Even when Minnow is menaced by dangers on the road, I felt like "maybe this time something interesting will happen," and then was unsurprised when nothing did. Alas.

 

I do feel that the language alone in this novel merits the attention it has received and the awards it has won. McTeer undoubtedly knows how to tell a story, but perhaps it's that he had no real story to tell, simply a set of images and ideas stitched together with a singular flat character. The lushness of the setting and McTeer's connection to this culture gives me hope that the next one will really be the big southern gothic fantasy I've been waiting for. Until then, however, I've got to put this into the simply average category, which is all the more disappointing for what might have been.