The race is on this summer, and not just the political kind.
A forthcoming crop of new Southern books aims to draw readers’ attention to a variety of other “races,” such as epic sagas of horse races, footnotes from the space race and racy coming-of-age comedies.
It’s a big season, too, for titles that take on the nation’s myriad race problems. Get ready for far-reaching narratives of the African diaspora, true-crime reportage and exposés on class and ethnicity. These are serious topics, sure, but a welcome diversion from the protracted presidential contest.
‘Nitro Mountain’ by Lee Clay Johnson. Near the start of this forceful debut novel, twenty-something slacker Leon flips his truck and breaks his arm while drunkenly chasing a damaged ex-girlfriend. Reckless decisions come with the territory in Leon’s desperate Virginia backwater, an “unfortunate intersection” of honky tonks, abandoned Dairy Queens and toxic relationships. The novel eventually goes full mountain noir via a murderous love triangle. Johnson’s sharp prose sometimes evokes Ron Rash — by way of Charles Bukowski. (Knopf, May)
‘The Sport of Kings’ by C.E. Morgan. Readers should be skeptical of any book listed among the year’s best when spring has barely sprung. However, this ambitious chronicle of Kentucky horse racing lives up to the glowing praise, bursting out of the gate with vigor and self-assurance. Morgan weaves an enthralling epic involving the heir to a wealthy horse-breeding empire, an upstart farmhand and the struggle to mold a thoroughbred into the next Secretariat. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, May)
‘Homegoing’ by Yaa Gyasi. Gyasi, an Iowa Writers’ Workshop grad born in Ghana and raised in Alabama, made headlines last year when her debut novel landed a seven-figure book deal. Not bad for a 26-year-old. Reminiscent of Alex Haley’s “Roots,” the book follows the descendants of two half-sisters through West African tribal conflicts in the 1700s, enslavement in Southern coal mines and plantations, the flourishing Harlem jazz scene and the modern era. While the narrative sometimes drifts off course, “Homegoing” still gets props for ambition. (Knopf, June)
‘Miss Jane’ by Brad Watson. Watson is a writer who stacks sentences like kindling: carefully, mindful of the coming bonfire. This fictional biography inspired by his maternal great-aunt finds heat in even the most unlikely circumstances. Born with a rare birth defect in 1915 Mississippi, Jane Chisolm grows into a captivating and fearless misfit who embraces her eccentricities. Funny and bittersweet, homespun yet complex, the novel reveals the slow burn of everyday yearning. (W. W. Norton & Company, June)
‘The Heavenly Table’ by Donald Ray Pollock. To call it “hardscrabble” would almost be a step up for the half-starved Jewett brothers, who share a one-room dirt-floor shack with their deranged, incontinent father, a scab-covered rat and at least five mulatto ghosts. (Take that, Harry Crews.) Pollock, who worked in a paper mill for three decades before publishing his first fiction, sends the trio of rascally anti-heroes on a crime spree that’s at once lurid and slapstick. (Doubleday, July)
‘The Dream Life of Astronauts’ by Patrick Ryan. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to appreciate this funny collection of stories set around Cape Canaveral. Moon missions and shuttle launches take a backseat to the earthly predicaments faced by the eclectic cast of Boy Scouts, gangsters, grandmothers and beauty queens. While contemporary fiction often portrays Florida as a big, swampy freak show, Ryan treats these lovable space cadets with affection. (The Dial Press, July)
‘Losing It’ by Emma Rathbone. “When was the last time you wanted something? Wanted it so badly that the very grip of your wanting seemed to prevent you from actually getting it?” asks Julia Greenfield, the late-blooming heroine of this amusing coming-of-age saga. At 26, Julia aches to reboot her life and finally lose her virginity. Neither goal appears so attainable, given that she’s spending the summer in Durham, N.C., with her aging maiden aunt — who is also a virgin. (Riverhead, July)
‘White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide’ by Carol Anderson.
Anderson, a professor of African American studies at Emory University, brings a provocative counterargument to the typical discourse on civil unrest. She suggests that the 2014 riots in Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere stem from “white rage,” the systemic forces that work to reverse social progress made by black Americans. The book surveys historical milestones from the Reconstruction through Donald Trump’s stump-speech vitriol. (Bloomsbury, May)
‘Voyager: Travel Writings’ by Russell Banks. The elder statesman of American literature again demonstrates his charm and intellectual prowess in this lively collection of travelogues and personal essays. The 76-year-old author lives part time in Miami Beach, but his obsessive wanderlust has carried him from Scotland to the Himalayas, along with more familiar destinations like the Carolinas and Florida’s Everglades National Park. “I keep going back,” Banks writes of the latter, “and with increasingly clarity I see more of the place and more of my past selves.” (Ecco, May)
‘The Lynching: The Epic Courtroom Battle That Brought Down the Klan’ by Laurence Leamer. Leamer, author of “The Kennedy Women,” revisits the heartbreaking story of Michael Donald, a 19-year-old black man murdered by a pair of Ku Klux Klan members in Mobile, Ala., in 1981. Ensuing court cases not only brought Donald’s attackers to justice but also put the United Klans of America on trial for conspiracy and eventually bankrupted the organization. Leamer deftly translates the historical record into a tense courtroom drama. (William Morrow, June)
‘Jackson, 1964: And Other Dispatches from Fifty Years of Reporting on Race in America’ by Calvin Trillin. From 1960-1961, Trillin worked in Time magazine’s Atlanta bureau, observing firsthand the desegregation of the city’s public school system and the University of Georgia. This standout collection of essays originally published in The New Yorker finds the celebrated journalist on the front lines of other flash-points in civil rights history, from voter registration drives in the 1960s to modern struggles on college campuses. (Random House, June)
‘The Strange Career of William Ellis: The Texas Slave Who Became a Mexican Millionaire’ by Karl Jacoby. In the late 19th century, wealthy and furtive businessman Guillermo Eliseo rode in first-class train cars on trips between Mexico and Manhattan — one of many perks of high society he could not have enjoyed had he kept his real name. In this titillating historical detective story, Jacoby, a history professor at Columbia University, sets out to discover how a man born into slavery in Texas learned to “pass” as Hispanic and slip through the racial barriers. (W.W. Norton, June)
‘White Trash : The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America’ by Nancy Isenberg. Whether they’re called “crackers,” “squatters,” “hillbillies” or even “clay eaters,” uneducated whites have been a marginalized segment of American society since the colonial era. Isenberg’s penetrating “White Trash” exposes an ugly legacy of contempt for the poor and examines how the landless working class played major roles in the early Republican Party, Roosevelt’s New Deal and Johnson’s Great Society. (Viking, June)
More summer book recommendations