The back cover of Jackson McCrae’s latest novel pretty much says it all: “Asked to travel back to the South in order to help out a small-town Junior League with the compilation of their cookbook, author Jackson Tippett McCrae finds that he’s bitten off more than he can chew in this tale of odd recipes, social climbing, Southern customs, blackmail, murder, and mayhem.”
In addition, lovers of anagrams will have a field day with Jackson McCrae’s Barring Some Unforeseen Accident. The book not only brings the art of word-scrambling to a new level, but literally boggles the mind as to how the author made so many of the elements of the story fit together in plot and word altercation. This fact should not come as news to students of Jackson Tippett McCrae’s other works, as each new novel of his has bounced off the last one in some form or other. This laugh-out-loud book is nothing short of his best work yet.
Like all Jackson McCrae novels, the premise is odd, to say the least, and entirely woven together with the narrative and details to such an extent that it would seem impossible to separate them. Barring Some Unforeseen Accident uses two ideas to hold the book together (other than the anagrams.) First, there is a “book within a book” just as there is in his first work, The Bark of the Dogwood - only this “book” is a cookbook that he’s been asked to help put together by a group of rather strange ladies in a small town. Junior League ladies, no less - five of them. Secondly, McCrae uses the parenthetical insertions as another jumping-off point to not only enhance and clarify the writing, but—believe it or not—tie himself into the book even deeper than one might expect with regard to the quirky people of Chalybeate Springs, the town the novel takes place in.
As with all character-driven novels, the good (and not-so-good, as McCrae states in the book) people of Chalybeate Springs are one-of-a-kind originals with a core that rings true for anyone who has lived at any time in a town of 25,000 or less. You know the ones I mean: the high school prom queen who refuses to let go of the past; the dourly matron of the town who lords her wealth over everyone; the power-hungry sheriff; the town librarian who happens to always be husband-hunting; the newcomer who is an outsider, trying to get in. It might all sound very Nora Roberts or Fannie Flagg were it not for McCrae’s special take on the hidden aspects of these individuals. While these people are recognizable to almost anyone at first, when the author requests that they contribute recipes and “tell a little about themselves,” their real colors shine through - and some of them are not so pretty.
At the foot of each recipe in the “book within a book” section is a sentence or two explaining how that recipe came into being or where it was passed down from. These snippets widen through the book and turn into a story themselves, with the five women of the Junior League sniping at one another until there’s a war brewing in the town. With this story technique, the town’s ugliest secrets are revealed. Toward the end of the book, the ladies turn their rancor toward McCrae, and we end up back at the beginning of the novel, where he is attempting suicide, a section that is perhaps one of the funniest in all literature.
Those looking for great writing in the recipe sections of this book will want to search out other venues as the ideas for the cookbook are written by the townspeople and they’re nothing you’re going to want to rush home and prepare. With dishes made from rattlesnake and roadkill to those designed to get rid of unwanted husbands, the recipes are good for anything but eating—laughing, but not eating. These recipes are funny and repulsive, and integral to the plot. McCrae pokes fun at small-town America and captures it to such a remarkable extent that there’s even a disclaimer by the publisher in the last pages of the book that reads
“But perhaps the most disturbing event occurred after the first printing of this novel, for, over seven hundred small towns in the South came forward in an attempt to sue, claiming that Chalybeate Springs was based on their fine hamlet, even though the entire population of Chalybeate Springs was dead.”
As is usually the case with McCrae’s novels, Barring Some Unforeseen Accident is like no other book at present in the marketplace. That alone should have you rushing out to buy it.