In several major ways, James Hannaham’s Delicious Foods sets itself up for failure. After all, the book’s main character, Eddie, is discovered in its first sentence spearheading his own vehicular escape from a farm—but has no hands. No matter how the rest of Hannaham’s second novel plays out, it is from the inaugural page a story catching up to a conclusion, a narrative climax in pursuit of rising action.
On top of starting at the end, Hannaham also employs a narrator I wouldn’t normally indulge: Scotty, also known as crack-cocaine, who relays the story of Eddie and his mother, the Scotty-addicted Darlene, as though opining on the circumstances of old friends—which, in some respects, Darlene kind of is. Wry and observant, Scotty is the anchor of this ambitious book, the slice of novelty that cuts through even its most tedious moments.
The story of Darlene and Eddie is one of modern-day slavery, or at least indentured servitude: Plied with drugs into a van in a strip-mall parking lot, Darlene finds herself semi-unwillingly employed as a day laborer by Delicious Foods, a farming operation so remote that its employees live on site and can’t seem to leave or contact the outside world, at least not until they pay back their debts, ever-ballooning figures exacerbated by the need to purchase everything from farming gloves to more crack-cocaine. Left behind wondering about his mother’s disappearance, a 12-year-old Eddie goes in search of Darlene and soon finds himself at the center of this sinister produce operation, with its third-world living conditions and abnormally lax drug policy.
Despite all of Hannaham’s risks (or perhaps because of them), DF is exciting, a commentary on race and social welfare and addiction couched in one kid’s Odyssean journey to find his missing mom. Eddie is precocious and determined, and even as we watch Darlene settle in farm life with all the myopic Stockholm Syndrome of an addict with a steady supply, we’re still rooting for her rescue at the hands of her inexhaustible son. Ironically, that doesn’t mean we’re necessarily rooting against Scotty, a natural MVP at Delicious, and the smooth-talking source of the employees’ almost insurmountable inertia. Scotty just wants everyone to chill, get high, “braindance” with him—who cares if that means making $10 a day hauling watermelons and sleeping in a cement box by night?
Like most Odyssean journeys, DF is a bit drawn out: It falls flat in the third quarter and picks up again in the fourth, which is when the story catches up its dramatic opening scene. But Hannaham’s writing is unique and compelling, and discovering the ultimate fate of his seemingly doomed characters is enough motivation to push past some mediocre middle bits. All flaws aside, Delicious Foods is for the most part of bizarre and gripping rabbit hole of a story, and a perspective on addiction that we didn’t know how much we needed.
TITLE: Delicious Foods
AUTHOR: James Hannaham
PAGES: 384 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: God Says No
SORTA LIKE: Tom Sawyer meets Monster
FIRST LINE: “After escaping from the farm, Eddie drove through the night. Sometimes he thought he could feel his phantom fingers brushing against his thighs, but above the wrists he now had nothing.”