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Southern Man


Southern Man

SOUTHERN MAN returns readers to Mississippi as we enter the current year with Penn Cage, the protagonist of Greg Iles’ highly acclaimed Natchez Burning trilogy. At nearly a thousand pages, the book has much to say and is destined to be a modern-day classic.

The timing could not be better for the release of this important work. We live in a country that is openly divided --- politically, racially and economically --- and it tackles all of these issues head on with frankness and believability. The recent film Civil War depicted a United States at war with itself, and it seemed scarily plausible. SOUTHERN MAN might very well represent one of the first building blocks in an inevitable skirmish similar to that one. It’s so accurate that it’s eerie to behold.

"SOUTHERN MAN is a mammoth achievement in both size and scope... If [this is the last book Iles ever writes], he can be proud of an enormous legacy of work he has left behind that will include SOUTHERN MAN as the cornerstone of his impressive bibliography."

Robert E. Lee White is a Southern war hero and the son of a Hall of Fame baseball pitcher. He is also an extremely popular conservative radio talk show host who stays just close enough to the center that he doesn’t seem too radical. Political strategists like Tio Carrera are helping him explore the possibility of a third-party run in the 2024 presidential election. His main challenge will be how to market himself and siphon off votes from Republican nominee Donald Trump. It is obvious that, like all politicians, there is something more to his background and agenda that we are not being fed. Once that is revealed, the novel really takes off.

Carrera pushes Bobby forward with the understanding that there is no critical mass like white anger and panic, and these are buttons he must push to get ahead. Meanwhile, Penn is invited to a rap concert and rally in nearby Bienville at the behest of the current Natchez mayor, Erza "Doc" Berry. The star of the show is Kendrick Washington, whose new hit samples Neil Young’s 1971 song, “Southern Man.” Regrettably, the event turns violent, and white officers open fire at the concertgoers and performers, killing over 20 of them. One of the unfortunate victims is documentarian Martine Boucher, a dear friend of Penn’s. His daughter, Annie, is also shot and badly wounded; it is Bobby’s quick actions that save her life.

Riots ensue, and the South is burning again like a scene from GONE WITH THE WIND. A radical Black group calling themselves the Bastard Sons of the Confederacy takes responsibility for this, and there is no end in sight. Penn is dealing with a lot right now as both he and his mother are suffering from blood cancer. Those who are familiar with Iles’ personal story will recognize the parallels here. When Penn’s mother passes away, it is a somber moment, but he has no time to grieve as his leadership is desperately needed in an effort to quell the violence and rioting that is rocking Mississippi.

Bobby sees these circumstances as perfect for his agenda, and he is ready to take down anyone who might stand in his way --- including an ex-military general who threatens to expose his secrets. Iles does a masterful job pitting Penn and Bobby against each other, even though there are moments when they appear to be on the same side, which makes for an incredibly engaging reading experience. The pacing is relentless, and it all leads to a firestorm of a finale that features an unforgettable confrontation between the two men.

SOUTHERN MAN is a mammoth achievement in both size and scope. It is an epic novel of ideas and issues, with racial divide, political hate, faith and justice merely being the tip of the iceberg. Iles recently disclosed that he nearly died while writing this book and admitted, "This might be the last thing I ever do." If that's the case, he can be proud of an enormous legacy of work he has left behind that will include SOUTHERN MAN as the cornerstone of his impressive bibliography.

Reviewed by Ray Palen on May 31, 2024

Southern Man
by Greg Iles