The Mitt Man is a tour de force by a first-time novelist with a distinctive voice, a flawless way with words, and an acute sense of character and setting.
Expertly evoking black life in the South in the late 1920s, The Mitt Man begins with the picaresque tale of a small-time New Orleans hustler named King Fish. This man is better at preaching than picking pockets, and it is getting caught while trying to lift the wallet of a wealthy white man that sets him on the path to his destiny(a complex road that leads him from the pavement to the pulpit and, ultimately, to the penitentiary. Once in jail, King Fish meets a brash young slickster from New York named Jimmie Lamar. King Fish decides that Jimmie is the perfect pupil for his lessons in the art of the con game(and together they devise a brilliant swindle for Jimmie to take to the streets of Harlem. But when he arrives in New York, young Jimmie gets much more than he bargained for. . . .
Set in the world of gospel choirs and chain gangs, echoing with the cadences of Elmer Gantry and Father Divine, this extraordinary book explores the dodgy realm where grifters get religion, reverends get rich, and a perfect scam might just pay off in salvation.
"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.
Mel Taylor lives in Los Angeles. This is his first novel.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The sweet, pungent, odor of jasmine crept through the windows of the New Orleans Charity Hospital, permeating the air and mingling slowly with the harsh chemical stench of the third-floor operating room. Doctors and nurses in full operating gear floated back and forth like spirits in a sance. King Fish, a thirty-six-year-old black man, lay very close to death. In New Orleans the ninth ward district was hard, filled with hot tempers and violent exchanges. King Fish was the victim of one such exchange. Two bullets had penetrated his chest and now his breath came in short, unchoreographed bursts, giving way to hopeless gurgling sounds. All around him the white images began to fade in and out of his vision, dancing and shimmering, like silhouettes done up in alabaster. Somewhere in the deep recesses of his mind King Fish heard the siren again, first far away and low, then increasing in volume, ever-building, soaring to a crescendo that seemed to explode in his head ... then a sudden eerie calm claimed the room, the faint wisp of jasmine, the nausea of his own blood, and again, the calm, the calm, the calm...
It could have happened to any man, at any time, over any woman, if he lived in the "Bottoms" and gambled too much, drank too much, and wore his ego on his chest like a medal of valor. Sue Ellen knew this as well as anyone; she had witnessed it firsthand over and over again. She had been introduced by King Fish to this subculture within a subculture, to this untamed world where every man carried a gun, and every woman a razor in her stocking, where conscience was an enemy and perspective as rare as virtue, a place where people lived dangerously ( just for the thrill of it. She wondered if King Fish understood that. If he lived through this she wanted to ask him "if it was worth it." Maybe it was cold having these thoughts, with him fighting for his life, but he had taught her that life was cold, especially the truth. As for tears, she had cried bucketsful. From the moment he had fallen to the floor with blood bubbling from his mouth, she had cried, in the ambulance, and all the way to the emergency room, where she now sat waiting for a miracle.
Suddenly she seemed to be drained of feelings and of tears. It had been fun in the beginning when love was sure and springtime fresh, when she was too young to think, too young to be afraid or to care, ten years ago when she had been only fifteen and glad to be considered grown-up, proud to be known as King Fish's woman.
Life was not complicated then; it was just one unrelenting adventure. She had seen him many times before he had ever noticed her. He stayed in her thoughts, in her daydreams, and in her night dreams. On weekends she would come alive with excitement and anticipation, which made her body go all warm and moist ( even between her legs and under her arms (because she knew that she would at least see him. He'll want me one day, she would think to herself. It didn't matter that her hair was not straight, or that she was not light-skinned like those high-yellow women who were always in his company. She was young and unused, the way she knew a man wanted his woman to be, and she would be devoted. Her grandmother had taught her these things and God was her grandmother's teacher. It was a shame He hadn't been able to teach her mother. "The best gift a woman can give a man is a body what ain't been touched," her grandmother would say, and Sue Ellen would smile as she cleaned the two-room shotgun shack before preparing her grandmother's breakfast.
Afterward she would drag the old number-ten washtub in from the back porch, boil some water in the big black kettle, and scrub herself fresh with Castile soap. In the cracked glass that stood against the wall and served as a mirror, she would watch her reflection as she polished her body with olive oil and applied baking soda to her underarms. It was a flawless body, shiny and muscular, with full pointed breasts that seemed to have appeared there overnight. Her teeth were perfectly straight and pearly white in her smooth black face, her smile quick and disarming. She always wore an old dress on Saturdays, one she had outgrown, to better show off this newly discovered body that her grandmother had warned her about. "You smell'n yo' pee, ain'tcha? Better watch yo' step and don't be messin wit' dem nasty little boys, else you gonna git sup n ya don't want." Sometimes she felt her grandmother was too old-fashioned, and sometimes she didn't give her credit for the knowledge of her years, but she loved this strong proud woman with silver hair and arthritic hands, who smelled of liniment, and of snuff, who was grumpy and opinionated. Her grandmother was and had always been her protector, her mother, and her friend, the one who rubbed her chest with Vicks, forced her, with love, to drink castor oil, and stayed up with her all night when she was sick. She loved her but had begun to hate the way they lived. She hated the run-down house, the smell of the kerosene lamp, and the stench of the slop bucket she had to empty each day. Most of all she hated the trips to the outhouse in back. She wanted something better for her and her grandmother and she was determined to get it, even if she didn't quite know how. She only knew that being cooped up there was not the way.
On Saturday, when her grandmother would fall asleep in the old rocking chair with her Bible in her hand, as she always did, Sue Ellen would tiptoe past the potbelly stove that stood boldly in the living room, sidestep the quilted couch she slept on, and ease out of the door into the bright summer sunlight. She loved the summer. The summer meant freedom, it meant birds and flowers and wonderful aromas. It was a time to dream, to wish, to fly. She would trot barefoot down the dirt road that snaked from her house to the one-room school the colored kids attended (when it was not summer vacation, as it was then), and make her way across the creek on a wooden makeshift bridge built years ago by prisoners on a chain gang. Her heart would pound when she came into view of the Bucket-of-Blood. Then she would put on what she imagined was the walk of a lady.
The Bucket-of-Blood was a faded run-down bar that leaned drunkenly on a plot of land fifteen miles outside of New Orleans. A large hand-painted sign boasted a dare to all those who walked through its doors: buy my moonshine whiskey, shoot dice at my table, or if you really want a thrill spend a sweaty ten minutes upstairs with one of Big Lil's fancy whores. The Bucket-of-Blood was the only thing in Gator Creek that had ever produced any excitement, even if it was considered by church people to be a den of iniquity. Of course she was too young to go inside, but she could watch as the hustlers paraded in and out wearing the finest fashions she had ever seen.
Copyright (c) 1999 by Mel Taylor
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