Meet Ti John, a young boy growing up in Houston in the 1980s, the decade of Reaganomics, disco music, and the candy of choice - red Now and Laters. Raised in a Black Creole family by a voodoo-practicing father and strict Catholic mother, he is blessed with a special gift: spiritual healing. On a regular basis, a deceased ancestor visits Ti John, announcing himself with the smell of smoke and serving as a spiritual guide.
But the community Ti John belongs to isn't easy. It turned from white and middle class to black and poor after the oil bubble burst in the 1960s, and the flood of 1977 sealed its current fate as a ghetto. Ti John struggles to remain an ordinary kid, but even with a rodeo-star father he idolizes, an overprotective mother who forbids him to play with the neighborhood "hoodlums," and the help of supernatural guides, nothing can shield Ti John from the rough side of inner-city life. He witnesses violence and death, gets his heart broken by girls, feels the anger of his own embittered father, struggles to live up to his mother's middle-class aspirations - all while trying to become the man he's expected to be. Will Ti John fall prey to the bad side of life - or will he recognize and hold on to the good?
My travels through magic realism have taken me to many parts of the world and to cultures and beliefs alien to my own. In the case of Red Now and Laters I have been introduced to the world of Creole culture, to voodoo traiteurs (traditional healers) and to the black rodeo circuit stars. The book moves in time from the post Civil War Louisina of the 1870s via the 1940s to the ghettos of 1980's Houston. Although the book centres on young Ti John and his need to balance the contrary demands of his parents and find his own path to adulthood, it also presents the stories of John Frenchy, Ti John's father, and of their ancestor the Burning Wood Man, Nonc Sonnier. This gives the book huge depth and it is in the tradition of a number of magic realist books that follow several generations of a family and show the practice of magic being handed down. I, who knew nothing of Louisiana Creole history, found this aspect of the book fascinating.
Regular readers of this blog will know that I have interest in traditional healing and that I have reviewed several books that are about the subject, such as Bless Me Ultima and The Hummingbird's Daughter. Ti John has inherited his father's and his ancestor's gift for healing and must reconcile that with his Catholic education and the streetwise lives of his friends. In fact, as is so often the way with magic realism, the story is very much about reconciling different, apparently clashing, cultures. Such a clash can be destructive and Ti John comes close to throwing away his chances, just as his father has done before him. Or it can be for the good. Will Ti John win through?
I enjoyed this book, even though at times I needed an interpreter - luckily some of the creole phrases are translated as footnotes, but other elements, such as some of the ghetto slang, also needed explaining. For my non-American readers "Now and Laters" are a type of sweet, and function as a way of buying favours in Ti John's life. But don't let the language put you off. It's worth it.
I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair review.