The first few weeks after reading this book, I wanted to say something about it but I frustratingly hadn’t really the energy to tackle such a difficult subject or pretend I had any idea about true crime books.
However the subject matter of the book seemed to raise itself in the form of the movie Fruitvale station (2013) the story of Oscar Grant a black man who was shot by police, in Oakland California in 2009.
The movie and Safrans book are geographically miles apart, but the subject matter seems to have plenty in common, especially for a white Australian audience that has practically no idea about what life is like for black Americans living on the edge of poverty.
Safran at first concentrates in on the many layers of Richard Barrett a white supremacist who was found murdered in his home by a 23 year old black man Vincent McGee. Strangely Barrett turns out to be one seriously odd character with enough problems of his own to easily fill the pages of this novel, the murdered seems to form the psychology and profile of the murderer.
At first Safran thinks this is a race hate murder from the other side of the fence, a black man who decides to get revenge and murder a well known white supremacist, however as it unfolds we discover that Vincent McGee had no idea about Richard Barrett’s activities as a white supremacist.
This poses a bit of a problem for Safran, his main angle (and reason for being there in the first place) has been removed, and he is left looking for a different angle for why he killed Barrett.
Safran struggles for the rest of the book and I felt he never got to terms with the reality of the situation. Fruitvale station for me made the message in Safrans book clearer, the story is not a cryptic adventure to find out why McGee killed Barrett, it is just a really sad story about an under privileged black American living in poverty with a bad upbringing in the poorest state in America.
Oscar Grant was essentially a good person who loved his family and was killed by police, Vincent McGee had a bad upbringing was violent neglected and maybe even had some mental illnesses, but just like Vincent McGee, Oscar had been to prison and had to have aggressive behavior to survive. They lived on opposite sides of the country but to me had a a sadly similar story. How many other black people get arrested so easily for doing so little? How many lives taken away or ruined for what seems like crazy small offenses?
I look at it like this, if I was walking down a busy street even in Newcastle’s worst suburb the chances that I would see a police officer or be searched randomly are very slim. In Newcastle I have more chance of getting booked for drink driving than from dealing drugs, my world and life story is miles apart from Oscar Grant and Vincent McGee. It is that first few offenses that set both Oscar Grant and Vincent McGee hurtling down terrible life directions.
For his first book I was impressed by Safrans writing style, I had trouble coming to terms that I am a fan of his and this was the reason for me reading his book, but the views of Mississippi by Safran where so good it kept me glued to the book. It was so good I began to wonder what Safran would be like as a travel writer like Bill Bryson.