Old Jim Canaan

Margaret Skinner, Author Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill $18.95 (287p) ISBN 978-0-945575-37-5
This first novel, a saga of an Irish racketeer in early-20th-century Memphis provides plenty of local color and ethnic humor, but fails to coalesce into an integrated narrative. Old Jim Canaan controls all vice in the city, and his Catholic family lives genteelly off the profits. His grand-nephew, Young Jim Flanagan, and his three sisters come of age with furtive glimpses into the world Old Jim controls, a control being challenged by quasi-reform mayor Crump. Fanciful uncle Merlin Mahon, Old Jim's legal adviser, hopes to edge out Young Jim's charming father, Nate, as heir apparent to the Canaan fortune. But despite the broad assortment of characters, white and black, and Skinner's sure feel for the cross-cultural milieu of the South, the novel lacks momentum and focus. Flashbacks confuse, minor characters take over the narration and the reader's energy flags even before the family's decline commences. Nate's slide into alcoholism and the trauma of sister Nellie's marrying a Protestant are unpersuasive, while the other members of this individualistic family go out with a whimper. Skinner writes authoritatively about interracial relations but glosses over the interesting anomaly of powerful Catholics in the South. One hopes she will try again with a less fragmented story. (Oct.)
Reviewed on: 10/01/1990
Release date: 10/01/1990
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