By Pamela Tarajcak
Sultans of Africa is the next installment of the continuing journies of Sailor and Lula Ripley and their friends and relations. This one focuses more on adolescent Pace.
Sultans picks up five years later from Sailor’s Holiday. The Ripleys have settled into comfortable working class domestic normalcy in New Orleans. Sailor still has a job at Bob Lee’s now very, very successful Gator Gone. Teenaged Pace is worried about some deal he is supposed to do. Lula is going back to North Carolina to take care of the now mostly repentant Marrietta who is due to have her gallbladder removed; a few days before she leaves, she notices a bald spot on Sailor’s head.
Two sixteen-year-old brothers, Smokey Joe and Lefty Grove Rattler, racist, misogynist, prime juvenile delinquents are talking. Their mother is institutionalized in Mississippi and their dad basically taught them all the ugliness he knows including the sterling bit of wisdom, “Ain’t one of the Lord’s daughters got a firm grip on life.” (374). They have tempted Pace to be the third man in a “shakedown drop in the Quarter” stealing all the collected profits of all nearby businesses being transported on an abandoned trolley car. Hoping to be dissuaded, Pace asks Sailor about old war stories but Sailor doesn’t offer any direction for him. Pace, on a diversion asks what happened to Perdita. Sailor hasn’t heard from her at all but admits, “Oh, she’s around somewhere, I suspect. A Grade-A piece of work like her don’t just fade away.” (380).
Though still worried, Pace goes to the Rattlers hangout, Nestors (a definite dive) when Beany and her daughter, Madonna Kim, sees him entering and worries about him for the Ripley’s sake. Meanwhile, Marrietta flies through her surgery and speeding through recovery. As Sailor confronts Pace with Pace’s visit to Nestor’s, Lula calls telling Sailor the good news about Marietta and Lula’s plans to stay in town longer as her favorite celebrity preacher is nearby and she wants to hear him. A few days later, Sailor and Bob Lee go to meet the CEO of Bayou Enterprises, Carmine “Poppy” Papavero who legitimized the still-imprisoned Santos’s crime empire into this business. They are hoping that Poppy would be the distributor for Gator Gone but Bob Lee doesn’t like the deal that Poppy presents. While Bob Lee is negotiating, Sailor is distracted by a young beauty, Jaloux Marron, who flirts outrageously with him. He is scared about how much he liked that attention. He makes an oblique statement. He promises not to say anything to Fudge Clay about seeing Black Henry’s slayer. The meaning behind that is unknown.
As the Rattlers and Pace head off to the robbery, the Rattlers shoot (they think fatally) two bystanders, one of whom, Zero knew Sailor in prison and recognizes Pace right away. Both men survive. After the off screen robbery, the Rattlers with Pace flee to Mississippi where they will hide the money at Mom’s asylum. Pace thinks, “Is this what it felt like to you, Daddy…when you were in deep shit?” (407).
Zero tells his boss, Poppy about the robbery (apparently all transported money was owed to Bayou Enterprises). Greedy to reobtain the money, they plan violence to the perpetrators. Poppy also learns that Sailor’s boy is one of the robbers and plans some kind of justice. Sailor calls Jaloux, about whom he has been thinking, for her to find out anything about Pace. Telling Lula nothing when she checks in, Sailor is going to rescue his boy. Coot Veal, a good friend of his, joins on the search. While waiting on Jaloux to join them, Bob Lee reports that Poppy blew up a Gator Gone warehouse. Jaloux reveals though Perdita (shocking Sailor with that name drop) that the boys headed to Mississippi. The three of them leave together.
Making it to Mississippi, Pace meets the Rattler’s mom who thinks she’s the Virgin Mary. Meanwhile, Lula and Bunny witness that preacher getting assassinated by an irate man. Pace and the Rattlers go into an abandoned farmhouse where they plan to hide, but it’s not abandoned. It’s inhabited by a crazy man by the name of Wendell Shake who is similarly as racist as the Rattler brothers. While Sailor, Jaloux, and Coot are racing to catch up with the boys, Sailor constantly feels tempted to break his vows. Poppy and Zero also in Mississippi enter a store and are killed by unknown assailants. Wendell kills the Rattlers and holds Pace hostage. Pace overpowers him, kills him, and escapes. He finds his dad at Mary Rattler’s Asylum and gets away with everything. Sailor learns of Poppy’s death.
Sailor rejects Jaloux as he’s dropping her off. Just as Pace and Sailor pull into their drive, they see Lula’s home too. Sailor tells her nothing about what happened but Lula tells him about the preacher’s assassination She fears that the old devil has the world by its tail and he’s not letting go. Sailor assuages her by saying he’s not letting go of her, which seems to comfort her.
Yet again this book is fast paced and filled with witty wisecracks. Marietta being a tertiary character is a relief as her constant haranguing of Sailor though softened by Sailor’s seeming redemption, is getting a little one note. Dal, one of the funniest characters in the previous books, is reduced to a cameo. Johnnie doesn’t appear at all nor does Marietta mention him. Now that Santos is imprisoned for life, is Mrs. Fortune disenchanted by the thrills of being in a love triangle and dropped Johnnie Farragut? If that’s the case, that’s sad as Johnnie is the sweetest and most pure character in these books and the loss of him is a major hit to future novels’ quality. If that’s not the case, then it makes little sense why he’s not also by Marietta’s side as she’s having her surgery. Unless he wised up that Marietta was just stringing him along in the five year lacunae between Sailor’s Holiday and the Sultans of Africa.
Teenage Pace is a disappointment. For such a precocious kid who had his head screwed on so correctly in Sailor’s Holiday, it is disheartening to see Pace commiting crime. It is unwarranted. There is no explanation at all about why Pace would do this, besides, maybe, a fascination with his Dad’s less than stellar past. His family life is super stable now with good parents and a doting grandmother. He hates school but most teens his age do. He had, at one point, a well-adjusted personality. There seems to be nothing pointing to a future criminal career. Was he peer pressured by the Rattler’s? Maybe, but it seems as if Pace sought out them and not the other way around. Is this teenage rebellion? It seems a little too extreme. Then to get no consequences, even from his father, after he reunites, is unbelievable.
Sailor also having an inappropriate crush with Jaloux also seems unwarranted. He and Lula were pretty obsessed with each other to the point where he telepathically knew that she was in New Orleans only five years previously. So contemplating a relationship with Jaloux is uncharacteristic.
For an author who creates such great flawed characters, it’s also a shame that some of the new characters are one dimensional, including and, above all, the Rattlers. Bobby Peru was a dark angel but at least he wasn’t a racist. Romeo was a crazy murderer but he trusted Perdita. These boys are so flat in their maliciousness. They are all flaws: being all at once criminals, bullies, racists, misogynists, disrespectful of parents. There’s not a single nuance about them at all. Pace recognizes that Wendell was a retread of Elmer. Jaloux is a pretty thing but as femme fatales go, she pales against Perdita.
Bringing up Perdita, even though Metairie is bigger than expected, it is also pretty unlikely that Sailor and Perdita never ran into each other through the course of five years, or he at least seen a picture of her on the paper with Poppy (supposing Poppy’s ‘legitimizing’ Santos’s empire made news). Killing off Poppy also seems like an odd move, as he was sort of interesting in his malice. Certainly not a Santos, but interesting. Who will be the underworld puppeteer now?
Lula’s useless plot was probably just developed to keep her in the book and for the reader to “naturally” find a way to touch base with some of the North Carolina crowd. The preacher’s senseless assassination was an illogical attempt to keep the salacious violence Gifford is used to writing and to maintain the “wild at heart, weird on top” theme of the series, but it feels stuck in there.
Sultans of Africa is the first truly weak book in the series. Where Wild at Heart had it all, Perdita Durango had its mad-cap atmosphere, and Sailor’s Holiday, though plotty, was entertaining and kept the characterizations consistent, this was the first book where all of that fell through. It had a fairly straightforward main plot without too many diversions but because Pace and Sailor’s characters changed so illogically and Lula, Marietta, Beany, and Dal were all useless, and the villains were one dimensional, it feels as if Gifford needs to try something new.
The version of the book I quote from is:
Gifford, Barry. Sailor and Lula: The Complete Novels. New York: Seven Stories Press,
- The Barnes and Noble Nook E-Book edition.