Nanci Kincaid’s most recent novel hit the bookstores just two weeks before President Barack Obama delivered his inaugural address, declaring we "cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself." Kincaid has been writing about relationships, particular race relations in the American South, for over twenty years. Her first novel, Crossing Blood, tells a tale of a young girl in the Florida panhandle who falls in love with a local boy who happens to be black.
Kincaid's fifth novel, Eat ,Drink , and be from Mississippi (emphasis on "from") is a departure from her earlier works in both the setting and the gender of the narrator . Previously, Kincaid has told her stories from a female perspective and has set them almost exclusively in the deep south. In her latest novel, the protagonist is male (Truely Noonan) and by page 39 the mis en scene has moved from Hinds County, Mississippi, to the Bay Area of California. What remains constant, however, is Kincaid’s sure and distinctive voice and her persistent themes—the depth and complication of family ties, what it means to be from the south, and the complex issue of race relations. A powerful sense of place always imbues all of Kincaid's works, even when the place is as far away from Mississippi as California.
Eat Drink and Be from Mississippi (Little, Brown and Co, 2009) is the story of two siblings, Courtney and Truely Noonan, who leave their home in Hinds County, Mississippi, to seek their fortunes in California. The story is told in third person from the point of view of Countney’s younger brother, Truely. The reader sees the world through Truely Noonan's eyes.
Courtney is a redheaded fireball who has plans for her future that definitely do not include Mississippi. Truely, whom we first meet as he is working harder than anyone else at trying to be the best in on his high school football team, and his sister Countney spend the first half of the novel getting themselves to California, getting married, and then, sadly, getting divorced. Courtney leaves for California first, ,abandoning her scholarship to prestigious Millsaps College, and then, not really knowing why, Truely eventually follows.
Both brother and sister have a special vision of how life ought to be lived, but, as usual, life has a different agenda. After their respective marriages fall apart, along with other aspects of their lives, Courtney and Truely turn to one another for support as they had done when they were young and to reveries of Mississippi, memories in which food plays a central role.
Shorty after Country moves to California and begins “living in sin with a virtual stranger,” Mrs. Noonam, convinced that Countrney’s “moral collapse was fully underway,” goes on a cooking binge (one of the funniest and most poignant passages in the novel). To the chagrin of Truely and his father, Mrs. Noonam soon fills every nook and cranny, every shelf and table, with every imaginable food from pinto beans with fat back, cornbread, vegetable soup, a pan of brownies, two lemon pies made with frozen lemonade, baked ham, smothered chicken, barbecue pork chops, baked potatoes, collard greens, buttered beans, green bean casserole, creamed corn and a prune cake made with jars of baby food.
By the same token, Courtney consoles Truely, and herself following the debacle of their lives, with southern comfort food—macaroni and cheese made with extra Velveeta, chicken supreme with cream of mushroom soup, green bean casserole (also made with cream of mushroom soup) and banana pudding with Nabisco vanilla wafers (and, no doubt, with Jello vanilla instant pudding). If California is not Mississippi, at least Courtney, can bring Mississippi to California. There is something about the food of one’s childhood that soothes the soul.
The novel takes a sudden turn when an enterprising black teenager, street smart and tenacious as they come with trouble written all over him, enters their lives. Courtney, who cannot fix her own life decides to fix Arnold's, and the story gathers momentum as it moves inexorably toward its denouement. Along the way, everyone's life is changed.
Rooted in Mississippi but played out in California and projected against the backdrop of the war in Iraq while dancing delicately on the shifting carpet of race, Eat Drink and Be From Mississippi is another gem of a novel from a gifted story teller. Entertainment Weekly says Nanci Kincaid's prose "hooks you good and pulls you in. Realistic the story may not be; affecting, it definitely is." And The Washington Post writes "This novel isn't, in the end, so much about Mississippi as it is about our American future, and on that subject it is decidedly and sweetly optimistic."
---Penne J. Laubenthal