Many of us are taught from an early age that, with a little hard work and ingenuity, we can have it all. We can have a beautiful, loving family, make lots of money, achieve our professional goals and, along the way, possibly change the world. Follow your dreams, we are told by everyone from Disney princesses to the commencement speaker at college graduation.
Jay Mize has a gorgeous wife, a young son, and a cozy little bungalow in town. That’s not enough for him. Jay has a dream – to till some land, develop a new way of growing crops and, in the process, change how life is sustained on earth. The dream gnaws at Jay until he decides to pursue it, and the results are disastrous. Within a year, the river has flooded his farm, his wife and son have left, and Jay is slowly starving to death. What he finds one day floating on his ruined land adds a macabre twist to Jay’s struggle, and sets up the central dilemma of Jamie Kornegay’s excellent first novel, Soil.
Set in a Mississippi town, written in wry prose, and populated with remarkably defective characters, Soil is reminiscent of the darkly comic works of writers likes Clyde Edgerton, James Wilcox, and others. Crazy shenanigans in a Southern town are not exactly unplowed literary ground, but Soil offers a contemporary perspective on an old lesson: be careful what you wish for. Jay’s isolated quest for greatness, fueled by cable news conspiracy theories and doomsday scenarios, drive him to madness. That madness leads to some stunningly bad decisions that get Jay into a heap of trouble. Kornegay writes about this descent with sharp, vivid passages that are sometimes harrowing enough to make your stomach spin. The descriptions of the ramshackle house and devastated crops on Jay’s property are equally powerful. It’s clear that the writer has an intimate appreciation for the natural forces that make the Delta such a strange, tormented place.
Other characters resonate in Soil. Danny Shoals is a hot-rodding deputy with a keen eye on replacing his uncle as county sheriff. Unfortunately, Danny’s eye for every short skirt in town, along with an urge to peep under other folks’ window shades at night, threaten to destroy his plans. Sandy Mize is Jay’s pretty but long-suffering wife. Her inner conflict over whether or not to save her marriage make Sandy a sympathetic character, but not a helpless one. Her sparring sessions with the delusional Jay contain some of the book’s strongest dialogue.
It’s natural to categorize this novel as Southern fiction because of its locale and storytelling style. But the weaknesses that most of the main characters carry – grand ambitions, flawed logic, extreme narcissism – know no geographic boundaries, at least in this country. Soil is a cautionary but entertaining tale about what can go wrong when we want something just a little too much.
Stephen Roth is the author of the novel, A Plot for Pridemore.
Be sure to “like” his author fan page at https://www.facebook.com/StephenRothWriter