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John Vercher's novel 'Devil Is Fine' tackles grief through magical realism

LAUREN FRAYER, HOST:

In John Vercher's new novel, an unnamed protagonist bangs out a book pitch in the middle of the night.

JOHN VERCHER: "Devil Is Fine" is the story of a biracial Black writing professor, grieving the loss of his son, who inherits a plantation from the white side of his family. In the process of selling the land, bodies of both the plantation owners and the enslaved individuals are discovered buried on the grounds. Questioning his notions of faith and family while exploring the impact of colonialism on his identity and beliefs, he becomes haunted by the ghosts of the dead while he writes a fictional account of the land's history.

FRAYER: Now, the thing is, he will have no memory of doing this. That's because he's in a fugue state or maybe drinking too much or maybe both. His book pitch, though, mirrors what's going on in his own life, except that it leaves out one crazy detail - he thinks he's turning into a jellyfish. John Vercher joins me now to talk about his novel "Devil Is Fine." Welcome to the program.

VERCHER: Hi, Lauren. Thanks so much for having me.

FRAYER: So you know the first question. Like, a jellyfish - really? Why - of all things?

VERCHER: It kind of came to me midstream. The story of the protagonist as a child remembering a time out in the ocean when he had become surrounded by dead jellyfish after a storm was something I pulled from my own experience as a kid. It's a memory that always stuck with me. I can't really say why other than the fact that I sort of miraculously came out of the water unscathed, as the protagonist does in this story. But as I was writing it, I thought, well, I can't just drop this story in there. There has to be some meaning behind that. And I just got really creative with where I could go with this idea of why is this jellyfish story so important? What could it mean symbolically? What could it mean thematically for this character?

FRAYER: Yeah. Without giving away too much, what is going on with your main character? Where is he in his life when his son dies?

VERCHER: He's at a point where a lot of things are coming to a head and not in the greatest way for him. He's questioned all of his time as a father as to whether he's been a good father, and now that answer has been taken away from him. He's also facing career difficulties as a professor because he's not publishing, and it's a publish-or-perish situation. And so he's at sort of this crossroads as to where and how his life is going to go, and it all seems to be out of his control.

FRAYER: And how does the narrator initially feel when he is told that he inherits this parcel of land that actually has bones found on it?

VERCHER: That becomes a later discovery when he first learns of the inheritance and learns that it's from his estranged grandfather. He's conflicted because in one instance, he wants no connection with this estranged grandfather, which - the reasons for that are revealed as you read on. But he also sees it as a connection to Malcolm, which he's also conflicted about, but it also connects him to Vanessa, who is Malcolm's mother, and they are also estranged. There's already this swirl of emotion around it. And then when he discovers there are remains on the land, that's the tipping point for him, and that's where this fugue state comes in because it's the grief, the emotion, the anger. It all sends him into a spiral.

FRAYER: So the son in the book has a name, Malcolm. The former partner, the son's mother, has a name, Vanessa. And yet we don't actually get the narrator's name. Why is that?

VERCHER: There's a tradition in Black literature for unnamed narrators that I think is very intentional. I'm thinking of writers like Maurice Carlos Ruffin, obviously Ralph Ellison. There's this idea, I think, that when you're questioning your identity or your identity is questioned by outsiders, you eventually get to a point where you begin to question your own identity. You start to wonder who you are. And so it made perfect sense for me to have a protagonist who was going through those kind of struggles about who he is, both as a father, both as a Black man, both as a biracial man, to not have a name because he himself doesn't know who he is.

FRAYER: It also struck me as a very American story you're telling. It's about race. It's about American history. But what's different about this novel, I found, is that you're doing it with this magic realism. You know, it's not just the jellyfish. It's your narrator at times morphs into his white ancestor, and he does things that he's later horrified by. By telling the story in that way, with a dose of magic, does it make it easier for the reader to absorb and think about these, like, really heavy things?

VERCHER: I think so. One of the reasons I took that approach is the last thing I want to do when I'm writing about these issues that are important to me is to come off didactic, right? I don't want to be in the position of wagging my finger and teaching a lesson. And I really feel that magical realism has the ability to do that. It makes it - I guess accessible is the word. I don't know that I'm necessarily looking to make it accessible, but at the same time, I want to start a conversation with the things that I'm writing, and I feel if an audience can approach it in a way that makes them feel comfortable talking about it or at least comfortable initiating the conversation, then that's a goal achieved.

FRAYER: This book is also about grief, national grief, as well as a deep personal grief and what happens if grief gets buried, literally underground, covered up. And the conversation that I first had with my editor after we both read this book was about what it's like to lose family members. And this book, for both of us, tapped into grief that we have both experienced. I have been in that fugue state that your narrator is in. It made sense to me. Have you been in that state yourself?

VERCHER: You know, I've lost friends and family in the past, but I think where a lot of the emotion attached to grief came from in this book was because I was writing this and forming the story during the time shortly after the pandemic had hit. And, you know, my children were much younger at the time, and I was trying to figure out, like, how do I explain this to my kids? You know, there was this feeling like, is this it? Is this the big thing that takes us all out? Having to sort of mentally rehearse that conversation with them felt like a sense of grief. And then watching my wife, who worked in a skilled nursing home where the virus ran rampant - watching her cope with that grief every day coming home, we were just sort of surrounded by it and immersed in it. And writing about it was a doorway out of that, at least temporarily.

FRAYER: I don't want to give, like, listeners the wrong impression, though, because this book is for sure about some heavy topics, but it is also hilarious. Like, the barstool banter between the characters is just so spot on. Like, we have this unnamed narrator, and then another character gives him all these funny nicknames that are literary puns. So I know you had so much fun with that. Like, can you just tell me some of those?

VERCHER: Yeah. Those were easily my favorite scenes to write, and that character in particular is one of my favorites, Clarence. You know, he's always sort of taking little friendly potshots at him, so he'll call him things like Phony Morrison or Snora Neale Hurston, just riffing on, you know, Black literary figures.

FRAYER: Yeah.

VERCHER: Yeah, it was kind of fun coming up with those.

FRAYER: Well, that's John Vercher. His new book is called "Devil Is Fine." Thank you so much for talking with us today.

VERCHER: Oh, it was my pleasure. Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Lauren Frayer
Lauren Frayer covers the United Kingdom, Ireland and parts of Europe for NPR News. She moved to London in spring 2023 after five years in Mumbai, covering South Asia.