cover image Standing at the Scratch Line

Standing at the Scratch Line

Guy Johnson. Random House (NY), $24.95 (432pp) ISBN 978-0-375-50158-6

In the 30 years this lengthy debut novel spans (1916-1946), much blood is spilt and few lessons learned. The macho misadventures of its larger-than-life protagonist LeRoi Boudreaux Tremain---aka King--drag the reader from the trenches of WWI to 1940s San Francisco, by way of Harlem and New Orleans. King, who whets his appetite for violence when he takes part in a family feud at the tender age of 14, makes a career as a killing machine and underground entrepreneur. Discovering a taste for shedding blood and a hatred for ""American Whites"" during combat with the all-black 369th Regiment in the fields of Alsace-Lorraine, King returns home to do battle with the mob, the KKK and law enforcement agents everywhere. Sometimes an avenging angel, sometimes merely an implacable force, King kills as briskly as the hero of a John Woo flick, only without the balletic grace. The glamour of his exploits--in killing, gambling, bootlegging and real estate--dissipates, however, when King's family starts to fall apart. His wife, Serena, undoes him through two illegitimate sons. One, LaValle, is conceived when she sleeps with a white racist sheriff to enable King's escape from captivity; the other, Leroy, is King's child by a New York woman, whose whereabouts Serena discovers but conceals from King. Leroy, left to grow up in an orphanage, causes a ""curse"" to descend on the family. The book unravels with tragedies of the domestic sort (deaths of relatives, miscarriages, car accidents), which, though cheapened by their frequency and a rather hokey voodoo cast, are somewhat appealing, if only as a break from incessant mayhem. Although Johnson succeeds in dramatizing the forces of prejudice and poverty, is perhaps an impossible task to sustain King's righteous rage, virtually a one-note performance, over so many pages. (Dec.) FYI: Johnson is the son of Maya Angelou.