Friday, October 5, 2012

A Book Review, Drag Racing, Burgers, and Rock And Roll

Barbecue and political corruption are two of Memphis's defining elements so it seems natural that the two are intertwined to form the plot of The Politics of Barbecue, a fast-paced and humorous satire novel by former Commercial Appeal political reporter Blake Fontenay.

In the book, the owner of a Beale Street barbecue joint has managed to get himself elected mayor and is touting a plan for bringing a Barbecue Hall of Fame to the city. That plan gives Fontenay plenty of room to delve into the backroom dealings that accompany any large construction project in the Mid-south, especially one involving public funds. 

When it comes to humor one of my favorite writers is novelist Christopher Buckley, who uses the cynicism honed from growing up around the movers and shakers of Washington D.C. to create hilarious caricatures of our nation's bumbling bureaucracies and the petty narcissists who inhabit them. With his debut,  The Politics of Barbecue, Fontenay has established himself as Tennessee's version of Buckley, with a former City Hall beat writer's eye for how the sausage of politics really gets made here underlying all the humor and hyperbole.

At the signing where I bought the book Fontenay said his next novel will center around a bid to bring a Major League Baseball franchise to Nashville. Since he was covering politics in Memphis during the successful push to relocate the Grizzlies here I'm sure that book will also include plenty of comically exaggerated scenes culled from real life experiences. 

Occasionally the more cartoonish elements in The Politics of Barbecue threaten to derail the story. The book's fictional mayor, Pete Pigg, is such an outlandish character that several of his scenes will induce eye rolling. And a subplot about a porn director leads to one plot twist on Beale Street late in the story that defies all possible suspension of disbelief. But the book's protagonist, a jaded young public relations drone, grounds the core story enough to keep the reader engaged on a deeper level than just laughing at the jokes.

At first I was thrown off by the decision to locate Pigg's restaurant on Beale Street, since one thing I've repeatedly confirmed with this blog is that while almost everywhere on Beale serves barbecue it definitely isn't home to any of the city's best barbecue. But Fontenay ends up focusing on the gimmicky, tourist trap nature of the Beale Street restaurants in the same exaggerated but comically recognizable way he approaches the city's politics.

When I say recognizable I don't mean that he drops any familiar names. He actually goes out of his way to avoid using the names of any of the city's real people or businesses. A Midtown bar with a wiffle ball field in the back parking lot, obviously inspired by Zinnie's, is referred to as Heck's while the local daily newspaper becomes the Avalanche. The fictional world Fontenay creates is still recognizable as Memphis, but if you enjoy picking out local landmarks from films like Hustle & Flow you will be disappointed by their absence from The Politics of Barbecue. However Fontenay ultimately does capture the love for the city that its character and history can instill in residents despite its flaws and he presents Memphis as a place that is worth fighting for. And he does it in a way that keeps the reader turning pages and laughing.

Speaking of reasons to love the city, I picked up a copy of the book two weeks ago at a signing and discussion event to mark its release at the Booksellers at Laurelwood. I mention the signing in a post about the overwhelming number of fun events that occur in this area during September and October. Last weekend involved another steady stream of fun distractions that kept me from putting together a review of the novel until today, even though it only took me a couple of days to fly through the book. It was the kind of weekend that once again showcased just how easy it is to have a good time here as long as you just get out of the house and take advantage of what is going on. It was Fun Ford Weekend at Memphis International Raceway, the ninth annual Gonerfest was tearing through the dive bars of Midtown and Sunday was the Best Memphis Burger Festival put together by Seth over at the Best Memphis Burger blog.

The Friday night kickoff party for Fun Ford Weekend involved live music, jet cars, and mechanical bull rides next to the strip where all manner of Ford cars and trucks were taking on all other makes and models during the "Ford vs. the World" event.

I got up Saturday morning and immediately went back to the track for sights like this vintage Ford Galaxie lifting the front tires way off the ground.

During the middle of the day I transitioned over to Murphy's pub where Gonerfest was taking place. Over the course of the weekend the rock festival jumps around between the Goner Records store, the Hi-Tone, the Buccaneer and Murphy's. The outdoor shows during daylight hours are very calm compared to the late-night events. Attending Gonerfest events is always an eye-opening look at just how big of a name Memphis still is in the music world. Even if you spend a lot of time going to shows in Midtown you won't recognize most of the people in the crowds. The question "where are you from?" draws answers like New York City, Los Angeles, London and Australia from people who have traveled here specifically to enjoy some good and dirty rock and roll in our good and dirty bars.

On Sunday there was a great turnout at the first annual Best Memphis burger Festival despite a steady drizzle of light rain. In fact, enough people were there to make the rain seem like something of a blessing. With good weather it probably would have been crowded enough to make it hard to move around. I'm not sure what Seth plans to do for a location if the event grows beyond its current size, which it seems primed to do. Even in the rain everyone was having a great time and making plans for next year.

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