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Juice!, the new novel from Ishmael Reed, readdress the O.J. Simpson trial through the eyes of a black cartoonist, Paul Blessings.

Few writers have been as playful, prolific and versatile as Ishmael Reed. After nine novels, six books of essays, and forty years of poetry, no one can say the professor at UC Berkeley stays quiet. His latest novel, Juice!, takes us inside the agitated mind of censored cartoonist Paul Blessings as he obsesses over the infamous O.J. Simpson trial for the better part of 15 years. A diabetic who inhales junk food while watching too much Larry King, Bill Maher, and Jeffrey Toobin, Blessings tries the patience of his wife, his daughter, and all who work with him, while trying to come to terms with the media’s portrayal of O.J. Simpson as a scapegoat for all things wrong with African-American culture.

Blessings’s cartoons are censored for being too provocative (one is of O.J. playing quarterback while Nicole Simpson plays center), and he’s repeatedly asked to take more money to do cartoons that he personally finds racist and offensive. Blessings’s bosses rarely hesitate to openly discuss identity issues in ways that would be inappropriate in most workplaces. Blessings, in this passage, doesn’t hesitate to take a stab at LGBT issues:

“You blacks might have been big now in the twentieth century, but gay, lesbian, and transgender issues are those that will dominate the twenty-first. After all, gays were oppressed two thousand years before blacks.”

“Yeah and some of them were emperors, kings, and popes. And during the slavery period, which side do you believe that white gays were likely to be on? The slave driver or the slave? Oscar Wilde, your icon, was pro-Confederate. Must have been the whips.” He turned red.

As I left his office I was wondering why I was being kept on when others who had higher ratings had been let go? Suspended instead of being fired. Was it because my being on the staff deflected criticism that Kraal was a bigot who hated black journalists? Also, I still had a core of local followers, but that could end. Look at Stan Mack. His following didn’t prevent him from being fired in July 1995 from the Village Voice by Karen Durbin. I had to get out of this business. Launch my painting career. I wonder, did George Harriman, the founder of black cartooning, have days like this?

Like a number of passages in the book, Blessings’s observations smack of inside baseball. Does even a sophisticated reader who doesn’t live in New York know who Stan Mack is? Or Karen Durbin? And yet, Reed offers no additional context to the reader.

Reed tries to connect the dots from the media’s portrayal of O.J. in 1994 to today’s media portrayal of Barack Obama. But between Blessings’s lengthy, and at times didactic, rants and a plot that never quite personalizes his struggle, Juice! reads like a series of essays that have been on the stove for a long time. Reed’s sympathetic portrayal of O.J.’s arrest in 2008 in Las Vegas while trying to steal back his memorabilia at gunpoint is one of the more interesting passages in the book. What we see is O.J. as a tragic figure, a destitute and broken man. But the analogy to Barack Obama’s media portrayal is never fully fleshed out, probably because Obama’s story has yet to be written.

Toward the end of Juice!, Reed does show a more mature Blessings who has grown out of his obsession with O.J. When he moves to Santa Fe and gets out of the media crucible of New York, Blessings seems to be a calmer, healthier person who’s come to terms with doing art for art’s sake. Many of the figures who asked Blessings to compromise re-appear and get what they deserve. In that respect, Juice! becomes a conventionally structured novel, perhaps a little too late. Like the infamous fleeing white Bronco, Juice! never quite escapes its essayistic tendencies.

Leland Cheuk is an award-winning author of three books of fiction, most recently No Good Very Bad Asian (2019). Cheuk’s work has appeared in publications such as NPR, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, and Salon, among other outlets. You can follow Cheuk on Twitter at @lcheuk. More from this author →