A Book About Juice

Jon Domini reviews Ishmael Reed’s latest book, JUICE!, about, yes, OJ Simpson.

Funny to think, but probably a lot of people reading this aren’t really old enough to remember the OJ Simpson trial in any significant way. Living in Southern California at the time, it was strange, even by Southern California standards.

The eponymous figure, to be sure, is based on the former running back, currently serving time in Nevada. Note the title’s exclamation point and its all-capital-letter format: What Reed calls O.J.’s “public lynching” provides the novel itself with much of its fuel, or juice. On almost every page, Reed underscores how the media frenzy has gone on years past the man’s acquittal for murder, and excoriates the way constitutional protections were trampled as O.J. became the country’s “dancing monkey” (a quip from O.J. himself, used as the epigraph).

Novelistic subtlety, in other words, has little place. JUICE! is concerned primarily with public life, and its insights are put across with the broad, jagged strokes of a political cartoon. Indeed, the novel’s protagonist draws cartoons for a living, and many passages here are punctuated by his drawings (actually the work of Reed himself, who’s published cartoons since the ’60s). The artist’s name is Paul Blessings, and he has no connection to Simpson—other than that he’s another successful black American at risk of becoming a “dancing monkey.” His cartoons used to have an edge, a firebrand central character, but now he has chosen to count his small blessings. As the book opens, O.J.’s arrest has set off “the Jim Crow media jury,” and much as this galls the cartoonist, he uses the media as sanctuary. He agrees to produce a toothless weekly piece, featuring the “charming curmudgeonly . . . Koots Badger,” for the TV ratings king KCAK. Like its name, the network’s politics smack of the KKK.

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