"God'll Cut You Down: The Tangled Tale of a White Supremacist, a Black Hustler, a Murder, and How I Lost a Year in Mississippi", by John Safran - Book Review

A long, complicated title for a similarly long, complicated book. I read about God’ll Cut You Down in Garden & Gun magazine, one geared specifically to Southerners, and had to get it.

Author John Safran, a Jewish Australian documentarian, pursued the story because he had spent time with murdered white supremacist, Richard Barrett. Why Safran knew Barrett is a titillating story on its own and is explained in the book.

The title sets the scene. Barrett’s partially charred body is found in a field in front of his house with multiple stab wounds. Vincent McGee, a young black man who had been in trouble more than out, is the suspect. Why? Well, in addition to being the last person to be with Barrett, he confessed. The twist? It might have been self-defense.

By John Safran

The facts of the story are too complicated to address in short form, but the framework for it rests in the deep seeded racism and dysfunctional race relations that have plagued areas of the South and continue to do so.

Safran, being a foreigner and Jewish, is probably the only person who could have told this story with any level of objectivity. His subtle humor is sublime (“Except for the dead cat in that flower bed over there, the little town of Brandon is impeccably well kept.”), and his observations of the South as an outsider are dead on. He speaks of eating fried chicken gizzards from the gas station and how “the air tastes like gasoline and stings the little cuts in my fingers.”

He is also able to hone in on those race and sexual orientation prejudices that exist so prevalently in the South but just aren’t discussed. After talking to the prosecutor about whether McGee might have killed Barrett because of a sexual assault, Safran quips, “I notice that Mark doesn’t think there’s a chance that a Rankin County jury would be sympathetic to a black man. He just thinks there’s a chance they’d hate gay people even more.”

Safran readily admits that what he wants the outcome to be is not necessarily consistent with the actual facts. He wants it to be a case of self-defense by an underprivileged black youth against a monstrous racist. But what he finds is a multi-layered jumble of conflicts. Barrett, he discovers, isn’t all bad and, McGee, isn’t just a victim of circumstance.

The book drags a little in the middle but, ultimately, it is as compelling as is Safran’s story telling ability.

Published: 2014
Publisher: Riverhead Books

Elizabeth's rating: 4 stars