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"The thick, low-lying fog covered the contours and waterways of the swamp. Only mature trees and shrubs were visible above the milky gray mist. Darkness was beginning to fade in the early-morning light, creating the surreal landscape of a nightmare."
So begins Standing at the Scratch Line, a breathtaking journey through thirty years of the African-American experience in America in a brilliant debut novel by Guy Johnson.
The story opens in 1916 in the steamy bayous of Louisiana. Young LeRoi "King" Tremain and his uncle Jake attempt a raid on a rival family's compound. In doing so, Jake dies, but not before LeRoi kills two corrupt white deputies. Forced by his family to leave everything he knows until the heat dies down, LeRoi embarks on a vivid adventure that first takes him to France during World War I, where he finds it is just as easy to kill vicious, bigoted U.S. soldiers as it is to kill Germans. Dubbed "le Roi du Mort"-the king of death-by the French because of his coldhearted, machinistic killing on the battlefield, King returns to America an ambitious man. Driven to create a family dynasty much like the one he was forced to leave, he battles the Mob in Jazz Age Harlem, fights the Ku Klux Klan in Louisiana, and outwits crooked politicians trying to control a black township in Oklahoma. Those who cross him are left bloodied, bruised, or dead.
Along the way, he marries Serena Baddeaux, a woman strong enough to stand by King's side, and who matches his determination, courage, and grit. Though more concerned with skin color and social standing than with the truth, she nonetheless knows no boundaries when it comes to protecting her family.
Standing at the Scratch Line is a sweeping novel that heralds the arrival of Guy Johnson, a bold new voice in fiction. In King Tremain, Johnson has created one of the most stalwart characters to walk the pages of fiction, as well as a brutally honest depiction of the African-American experience during the first half of this century. King Tremain, the badass central character of Guy Johnson's Standing at the Scratch Line, was born LeRoi and grew up in the swampy Louisiana bayou during the first part of the 20th century. It is only when he serves overseas during World War I, however, that LeRoi comes to appreciate the majesty of his name. As he should: fighting in the front lines with the "colored" 369th, LeRoi earns the title King. King takes his soldier's stance home with him and throughout his life kills whoever gets in his way, be they Italian mobsters or policemen. Not one for morals or rational contemplation, he lives by the code he relays to his army buddies during the war: "I just got two rules: be courageous and don't take no shit!"
In the course of tracking King's life, Standing at the Scratch Line crosses cities and decades--from New York to New Orleans to Oakland, from the teens to the '40s. King becomes a wealthy man, largely thanks to the opportunities presented by Prohibition. Handsome and strapping, he easily wins the heart of a Louisiana farm girl, Serena, who becomes his wife. Unfortunately, their love doesn't last long--even though the marriage does--because of tragedies involving their sons, for which he blames his wife. In King, Guy Johnson offers a character who responds aggressively to his time and place in history. He is a man of menacing proportions, with a justice system all his own. --Katherine Alberg