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Southern Discomfort 

Cynthia Shearer's South is set on shuffle

No, Robert Johnson did not make a deal with the devil to acquire mystical guitar-wrangling powers. He practiced, and -- with some help from his spider crab-like fingers -- was able to sound like two guitarists playing at once even while howling about having his lemon squeezed until the juice ran down his leg. His death? Not mysterious either. A dirt-poor adulterer with a taste for other men's wives, he was by most accounts killed by a jealous paramour of whatever young filly was enjoying those aforementioned slithery digits.Southern totemic tales like these are usually something to be avoided. Inherent in their pseudo-mystical, "authentic" usage of antebellum archetypes, they quickly reach the status of self-caricature by their over-reliance on Southern stereotypes: ice tea, Delta blues, "Fergit Hell," and kudzu-draped road signs pointing the way to Yoknapatawpha. Know this: the American South holds no more ghosts than anywhere else in the country. What we hold are more ghost stories.

So, it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I cracked open The Celestial Jukebox, the new novel from author Cynthia Shearer (The Wonder Book of the Air). The Celestial Jukebox centers around the stories of various characters, perhaps the most memorable of which is Boubacar, a 15-year-old boy from Africa who travels to Mississippi to meet up with African friends and relatives already living in the region. Settling in Madagascar, Mississippi, Boubacar soon heads to the Celestial Grocery, run by one Angus Chien, a second-generation Chinese man whose lot in life reminds one of Steinbeck's "Doc" in Cannery Row.

Inside the grocery is a jukebox which hasn't been updated or repaired since it was installed in the late 1930s. Thanks to the lack of upkeep, the machine rarely plays the actual songs people choose, instead providing them with a sort of random shuffle not unlike that used these days by CD and MP3 players.

The Jukebox thus becomes the center of the story, a simulacrum or mirror of the random tunes and memories and dreams bouncing around the characters' heads, forever revealing themselves at the most inopportune times.

Shearer's gift for objective description is the real celestial jukebox in this novel, however: it holds everything together:

"The Celestial Grocery was the unacknowledged heart of the little dying town, the kind of place to get live fish bait at five in the morning or eggs over easy near midnight if you could catch Angus still up. Inside, plaid flannel shirts from Taiwan were shelved next to sardines from Finland and pantyhose from North Carolina. Cheap cotton-candy-textured baby dresses from the Philippines hung on a rusty rack alongside camouflage t-shirts from Alabama meant for deer hunters. Shotgun shells and tractor sparkplugs, Elvis and Ole Miss t-shirts, baby formula and diapers, herbicides and hemorrhoid ointments, horse liniment, bridles, hoop cheeses, plastic rosaries, tired shopworn apples, and yellowing dog-eared heads of cabbage. Customers, whether they lingered or were just passing through, always left smelling like ambient tobacco and hamburger grease."

Having spent a good deal of time in Mississippi over the past few years, I can vouch for the preponderance of such places. Though now often cloaked in "convenience store" guise, they serve as mini-groceries, general stores, and meeting places for folks in small towns like Holly Springs and Clarksdale. There's nothing so magical about them except for their metaphysical architecture: they are melting pots of food, culture, and human interaction.

At one point in the book, young Boubacar becomes infatuated with a white folk artist whose yard art reminds him of home. The fact that the folk artist is white -- a rarity in the "authenticity"-starved world of outsider art -- and Boubacar is black isn't even an issue here. Something in the art speaks to him in an honest and pure voice, and the seeming incongruities are forgotten.

The thing about a good jukebox is that while you never know what's coming next, you know it'll be interesting. And that, ultimately, is why Shearer's book succeeds. Her book is unflinching, unapologetic, and ultimately all about the people: poor and rich (most people forget the South also includes Miami), black and white, all coming together in a place as diverse -- and beautiful, and scary -- as they are, and trying their best to make beautiful music together.

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