cover image Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ All-Time Greatest Hits

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ All-Time Greatest Hits

Mark Binelli. Metropolitan, $26 (224p) ISBN 978-1-62779-535-7

Binelli’s (Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die!) second novel is a loose retelling of the life of R&B and shock-rock singer Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. In no particular order and from various points of view, the author recounts the many episodes in Hawkins’s life, from which myths were eventually made. We hear of Hawkins’s childhood with foster parents, whom Hawkins later reimagines as a tribe of Blackfoot Indians, and of his school days and brief obsession with opera. The musician does a stint in the military (he may have been as young as 14), becomes a boxer in Alaska, and does time in prison (for murder, or was it possession of narcotics and statutory rape?). Hawkins talks with a ghost and claims to have sired 75 illegitimate children, who gather for a family reunion after his death. He confesses to an uncanny fear he developed of his renowned gag: arriving on stage in a closed coffin, which he did so many times that he began to believe it was an omen. We never know for sure whether was really so drunk he couldn’t remember recording the song for which he is most famous, “I Put a Spell on You.” Thematically, this strange book might be best summed up in a line from Hawkins: “It’s not that you want to write songs that last forever. It’s about wanting to make yourself so special, so alien a presence in the square world, you won’t have to live or die by its rules.” (May)