Despite reading numerous horror novels in the past, Delicious Foods is the first book to seep into my dreams and force me to jolt awake while drenched in sweat. On the surface, one might assume that my nightmare was caused by one of the multiple instances of gristly violence within the book, but that is not the case. What really shook me to the core was the notion of being a modern-day slave; having all freedom taken away and being at the mercy of one's vices. James Hannaham presents a hidden world that is both surreal though his unique stylistic decisions and realistic through the humanity of his characters, while maintaining a truly horrifying premise.
Scotty & Company Travel Through Time
Hannaham's sophomore novel chronicles the majority of Darlene's life, a woman who has a baby son, gets married, suffers the racism-fueled murder of her husband, gets addicted to crack, neglects her son, and ends up being conned into servitude at a farming operation. Although I will omit the specifics of the end of the narrative, one needs to only read the opening pages to get a glimpse at the end of this tale.
Delicious Foods is not presented in chronological order. In fact, the prologue takes place towards the end of the overall narrative: the reader is introduced to one of the protagonists of the book, Eddie (Darlene's son). The opening sentences raise a myriad of questions in the audience:
"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. Dark stains covered the terry cloth wrapped around the ends of his wrists; his mother had stanched the bleeding with rubber cables."
When I first read these opening words, I thought it was a bit cheap. Sure, begin with this bizarre and macabre image to draw the reader in: shock for the sake of being shocking. Granted this scene was chosen to start the novel in order to create disbelief and mystery, it effectively sets the tone and ends up being a pivotal moment in the narrative.
After this bizarre opening, the book not only leaps through time from chapter to chapter, but the point of view changes as well. Most sections are presented by an omniscient narrator, but some are told by a unique voice who refers to himself as Scotty. Scotty does not care for proper grammar and is constantly using slang words. In fact, Scotty is crack. Yes, the drug:
"...can't nobody pin what happened to Darlene on me. Can't nobody make you love em, make you look for em all the time. Maybe I attract a certain kinda person. Folks always saying that I do. Doctors talking now 'bout how people brain chemistry make some of em fall in love harder with codependent types. But I feel a obligation to Darlene."
Similar to the gristly opening, I first assumed that this was a novelty, a gimmick. In fact, the dispersed narration by the substance that holds a grip on Darlene is both incredibly refreshing and explains many of Darlene's desperate actions. Hannaham presents a character in a situation that is next to impossible for the layman to relate to and creates intense empathy in the reader. Throughout the tragedies of the novel, the presence of Scotty becomes a comfort.
Despite the variation of voice and chronology from chapter to chapter, the author avoids creating confusion. The chapters are distinct, and in fact the narrative becomes increasingly linear as the story delves into more and more chaos.
A Ride in the Death Van
As previously mentioned, a story with such a seemingly alien and specific premise poses the risk of not creating a human connection with the reader. Delicious Foods does not possess this problem. James Hannaham provides enough detail and imagery to make the story startlingly real. The idea of Delicious Foods (the name of the work farm from which the book title is derived) is enough to be disturbing, but the true brutality of the location and the ruthlessness of the upper employees is enforced through the background the book provides. Since dispersed chapters give a glimpse into what Darlene has faced in the past, it makes her hardships in the fields simultaneously believable and more horrifying. Images of headlights from the 'death van' that picks up potential new workers (junkies on the street) creates goosebumps for the audience.
The impact of this story was evident when I found myself at Delicious Foods late one night. Seemingly out of nowhere, I was lying on a ratty cot in a drafty chicken coop with concrete walls. My twin brother was in the room with me, but only moonlight was illuminating the room. As soon as I realized where I was, a palpable panic filled my body. I was trapped. I knew that attempting to escape would, at best, add hundreds of dollars to my continued debt to my higher-ups, and at the worst cost me multiple broken bones. Even if I did all of my assigned work, I could never accrue enough money to leave the farm. Just like for Darlene, no practical solution existed. All I could do was sit on my cot and begin to hyperventilate. I was completely trapped.
Jolting awake, I realized I was drenched and my heart was nearly beating out of my chest. Not only was it the first time that reading a book had given me a nightmare, but it was my first bad dream in over a year. The terror was incredibly real. On the surface, there is not very much in common between Darlene and I, but James Hannaham made me feel her despair through Delicious Foods. The hopelessness and complete lack of control she faces tap into the deepest fears of the human psyche. Amazingly, after completing the novel, the residual feeling is not emptiness but connectedness: the realization that in spite of our differences, our rudimentary needs and displeasures are shared.