Nobody renders the aphorism, "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get you," more vividly on the page than Ishmael Reed. From the beginning of his career in the '60s to this allegedly post-racial moment, Reed has written dispatch after furious dispatch from the complex milieu in which black Americans have always lived but which their fellow Americans have never been able to fully recognize. For Reed, this lack of understanding is not only a major political offense, it's a source of personal frustration that has only grown over the years, to the point where instead of penning his memoirs, he is still in the trenches, shooting down the hypocrisy, indifference and disingenuousness that long ago replaced legally sanctioned racism. It has been decades since racial inequality has been regarded as a breathing moral outrage — and now how could it be when we have a black president? — though statistics conclude again and again that it is still very much alive. Believers like Reed have it tough.
So it's no surprise that Reed's new novel, "Juice!," dives back into the fray, but in typically unconventional fashion it focuses not on Obama but on an event that for many Americans already feels many eras removed: the trial of O.J. Simpson for the murders of his former wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman. The book's main point is that the racial tensions that underlie so many discussions about the "trial of the century" 16 years ago are still with us. This surreal tale about a controversial black cartoonist named Paul Blessings (a.k.a. "Bear," a thinly disguised Reed) who obsesses about the daily developments of the trial in 1995 and the guilt/innocence of O.J. is meant not simply to remind us how obsessed we all were back then but also that our obsession with divining the real motives of a high-profile black man never goes away, it just lies dormant until the next actor mounts the stage. (Is President Obama a patriot or a socialist? Cool or volatile? African or American? In other words, is he innocent or guilty?)