John Safran is a specialist in offensiveness, especially when it comes to things like race, religion, and gender. As the host of Race Relations in his native Australia, Safran managed to switch Palestinian and Israeli sperm samples, walk around Chicago in blackface, and get himself crucified in the Philippines. For one such stunt, he appeared at a white supremacist's young athletes rally here in Mississippi, where he announced to a puzzled audience that the event's organizer, Richard Barrett, tested positive for African DNA. After Barrett and his lawyers threatened legal action over the prank, the video footage got cut from the show. And that was that.
Until one year later.
Back in Melbourne, someone tipped off Safran about a bizarre murder in Rankin County, MS. Richard Barrett—the white supremacist whom he spoofed on his show—had been brutally stabbed to death and set on fire inside his rural home. The accused killer was 23-year-old Vincent McGee, an African American man who had been doing yard work for Barrett. Unable to resist the potential of a sensational trial (he of course proclaims himself a "race trekkie"), Safran strapped on his best Truman Capote hat and flew back to Mississippi. What he found was even more disturbing and complex than he could have imagined.
Safran's book chronicles every twist, turn, trap, and rabbit hole that he fell into during the ensuing months he spent around Jackson, MS. As a Jewish Australian, Safran is the ultimate outsider. He claims to know very little of Mississippi or its reputation elsewhere in the U.S., which makes him the perfect investigator and author on the case. This sets him up for moments that are hilarious, awkward, and sometimes poignant. Cozying up to the host of a white nationalist radio show, he ends up counseling the middle aged man on his love life:
"'My problem is,' he says, 'it's hard to get the kind of girl I want when they see that trailer and they know I am unemployed.' 'I'd spin it around,' I tell him. It seems like you're self-employed.'"
Mis-hearing McGee’s mother recalling the death of her other child from "crib death," he prods, "Crip death? Is that gang-related?" He even gets duped into buying flowers and transcribing love letters for Vincent McGee during his incarceration. Via his own buffoonish ignorance, Safran successfully portrays himself as a naive journalist. And no one he covers looks squeaky clean, either.
By the time you reach the closing chapters, you'll come to the same conclusion that Safran did: everyone is lying to some degree, and nothing is even as remotely simple as it seems. Was Barrett actually an FBI informant? Were he and McGee engaged in a sexual arrangement? Does the Mississippi Dept. of Corrections routinely deny black families visitation rights? Why did Barrett include the Government of Iran in his will? And most tantalizingly elusive of all: what on earth actually happened that night in Barrett’s house? When you read about the only item hanging in Barrett’s closet, all assumptions vanish out the window.
Fans of The Fall of the House of Zeus and the film Zodiac (in which the investigators also bite off more than they can chew) will love this book, as long as they have a sense of humor. Since Safran apparently videotaped and recorded so much of his experience, perhaps the story would've been more successful as one of his documentaries. It would've at least cut down on most chapters opening with some variant of “Turning on my Flip cam, I entered the Rankin Co. Judicial Building….” But for a strange adventure down the darkest alleys of Mississippi’s cursed history of racial tension, God’ll Cut You Down is a new classic from the unlikeliest of sources.