SEPTEMBER 21, 2019
IN MISSISSIPPI RECKONING, Mitchell Zimmerman punches the reader in the gut with intersecting stories of terrible violence arising from the sickness of white supremacy. Lawyer Gideon Roth is defeated after 14 years of seeking to save a convicted murderer and rapist from the gas chamber, hoping for life without parole. Roth investigates Kareem Jackson’s life and family history, a kind of forensic biography, to excavate the history of degradation and brutality visited upon the African-American convict and his family for four generations. He presents this genealogy of hideous violence as mitigating factors, but to no avail.
The transmission of violence across generations and the deformations as a result are particularly vivid and tragic in the novel, and the scenes of racist terror are realistically rendered and devastating. Gideon Roth is a former Mississippi Freedom Summer civil rights worker who graphically recalls the bloody atrocities of the Klan and others who attacked the young organizers during the summer of 1964; the novel blends fictional action with real events. The reader gets to experience life under constant racist terror, the confrontations with “good ol’ boys” along dark roads, the nightriders, and more. Roth is particularly haunted by the infamous murders of the three civil rights workers, James Chaney, Andy Goodman, and Mickey Schwerner, in Philadelphia, Mississippi. The fictional Roth was assigned to plead with the FBI to search for the missing civil rights workers. But the feds aren’t convinced of the urgency, and despite his desperate pleas, the murders are carried out in brutal fashion.
Roth is overwhelmed, and the trauma lasts years, even decades, most notably because the perpetrators of those murders receive only minimum punishment and go on to live the rest of their days in peace. When Roth fails to gain any mercy for his client, he is riven by guilt, losing his job at a high-powered Silicon Valley law firm, his wife, and his emotional bearings. He plunges into increasing depression and mad obsession.
In his deranged state, he seeks to render justice on the murderers of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, thus beginning a journey to slay the killers. Roth meets a variety of people, each providing a different sounding board for an emotional life entangled with his desire for social justice. At one crucial moment, he pays a surprise visit in Illinois to his former lover Susan, now a friend who is also a veteran civil rights worker, and asks a basic question: “Hasn’t all that has happened since the sixties made you feel defeated?”
This is a question most veterans of the movement have asked themselves at one time or another, given the resilience of the power structure to absorb or deflect all the advances to justice. The novel is set in the mid-1990s, 30 years after the Mississippi murders, and Roth recounts the enormity of the setbacks since then. The reader’s awareness of how awful the situation is under Trump makes the despair even more palpable. Zimmerman writes: “The white backlash victorious. Both parties working together to destroy the welfare safety net. Indifference toward the poor. The same old Southern reactionaries back in control of Congress.”
Susan tries to reason with him, to point out the gains, despite the setbacks: “We ended American apartheid. We triggered the women’s movement. We inspired the anti-Vietnam-war struggle. […] It’s not too much to say we re-kindled American democracy.” Still, the sense of defeat and the urgency to do something about it pushes Roth over the edge.
How will Roth’s descent into Mississippi and madness end? Without spoiling the plot, it’s enough to say that although Roth is plainly an amateur in the assassination business, his scheme is creative, and he carries it out methodically, with plausible disguises and tactics. Yet when he reconnects with the African Americans in Mississippi with whom he worked years ago, he gains a sense of deep patience and solace that is in stark tension with his scheme. Roth’s plunge into hell becomes an encounter with beauty and love, and it is not clear how he will resolve the imperatives that pull him in two directions.
The novel is gripping and harrowing; what we experience through Roth’s eyes is deeply disturbing yet also revelatory. Mitchell Zimmerman is himself a lawyer who has worked on a death penalty case for 22 years. He is also a veteran of the Southern freedom movement in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Georgia. He writes from deep knowledge, though the novel is not autobiographical. This is an author who knows the landscape of American racial horror, a survivor who brings his own experience and emotions to bear in exceptional prose.