Blackjacks and Blue Devils by Jerry Wilson
(Mongrel Empire Press, ISBN 978-0-09833052-5-5)
Jerry Wilson's Blackjacks and Blue Devils is a stunning collection of gritty, realistic fiction. Wilson’s direct writing style embodies the heartaches his characters suffer, and on occasion work through. The collection’s second story, “A Change of Worlds,” follows Rueben Westerfield, a husband and new father who has set out alone to establish a homestead in the midst of the Oklahoma Land Run. Rueben, a lone hero battling the odds, trumps the story’s racist, greedy antagonist, and stakes off a homestead for his family.
While Westerfield is triumphant, in “Desire and Shifting Sand,” Rudolph is an aging farmer trying to cope with a disappointed wife and life. All of their neighbors have recently struck oil, and to make matters worse, his wife is angry that neighboring African American families have a higher standard of living. Rudolph meets his demise under an elm tree when his head hits a root. In his final moments he hallucinates that Richstrike Drilling offers him a contract and the story’s last two sentences express irony and sadness: “Oil,” Rudolph said. Then his eyes closed, and rich brown juice seeped from the corner of his mouth into the sand.”A life of disappointment is capped with this death scene that ridicules Rudolph into the afterlife.
One of the collection’s strong suits is Wilson’s eye for highlighting our human foibles and contradictions. This is best seen in Tommy Mason, a naïve ministerial student in “The Ends of the Earth,” who finally perceives the racial inequity of Jim Crow when he and Franklin, an African American classmate, are refused service in an Oklahoma diner. Ironically, Tommy had invited Franklin to speak at a local church because they were raising money for missions to Africa.
Blackjacks and Blue Devils looks unflinchingly at life’s triumphs and absurdities, presenting characters and places in all of their unvarnished glory. While the collection is set primarily in Oklahoma, these stories speak to universal verities, and quite possibly Blackjacks and Blue Devils will make you appreciate the human condition in new ways.
Reviewed by Hardy Jones