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Standing at the Scratch Line

Standing at the Scratch Line

4.6 65
by Guy Johnson

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Raised in the steamy bayous of New Orleans in the early 1900s, LeRoi "King" Tremain, caught up in his family's ongoing feud with the rival DuMont family, learns to fight. But when the teenage King mistakenly kills two white deputies during a botched raid on the DuMonts, the Tremains' fear of reprisal forces King to flee Louisiana.

King thus embarks on an


Raised in the steamy bayous of New Orleans in the early 1900s, LeRoi "King" Tremain, caught up in his family's ongoing feud with the rival DuMont family, learns to fight. But when the teenage King mistakenly kills two white deputies during a botched raid on the DuMonts, the Tremains' fear of reprisal forces King to flee Louisiana.

King thus embarks on an adventure that first takes him to France, where he fights in World War I as a member of the segregated 369th Battalion—in the bigoted army he finds himself locked in combat with American soldiers as well as with Germans. When he returns to America, he battles the Mob in Jazz Age Harlem, the KKK in Louisiana, and crooked politicians trying to destroy a black township in Oklahoma.

King Tremain is driven by two principal forces: He wants to be treated with respect, and he wants to create a family dynasty much like the one he left behind in Louisiana. This is a stunning debut by novelist Guy Johnson that provides a true depiction of the lives of African-Americans in the early decades of the twentieth century.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
When 17-year-old LeRoi Tremain murders several crooked lawmen in the Louisiana bayou in 1916, his family advises him to join the army rather than face Southern justice. Tremain is shipped off to France to fight in an all-black regiment, where he discovers a special talent for killing--his personal philosophy being summed up in the motto "I came to kill." Renaming himself King (as in "King of Death"), Tremain returns to Jazz Age New York and goes to work as an urban warrior, protecting black nightclubs in Harlem from Mafia control. This fast-paced, intelligent, and extremely violent first novel by the son of Maya Angelou presents a brief history of 20th-century black America in the guise of a testosterone-fueled adventure yarn (though Johnson does include a few strong women in his mostly male cast of characters). Recommended for most fiction collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 8/98.]--Edward B. St. John, Loyola Law Sch., Los Angeles
David Bowman
Eddie Mars, my editor, threw this book into my lap. "This seems about your speed," he muttered, then walked on. "See what you think."

I looked at the cover -- an old tintype photo of an African-American World War I doughboy. I turned the book over. The brief blurb let me know this first novel was about "King Tremain...a dark angel of vengeance." Guy Johnson was compared to Walter Mosley, Larry McMurtry, and Mario Puzo.

Okeydokey. I read.

And I kept reading. What an astounding book. The hell with Mosley, McMurtry, and Puzo. Johnson is rubbing shoulders with Ernest Hemingway and Jim Harrison. We're talking operatic history on a grand stage, stretching from the American South circa 1916 to World War I France to Jazz Age Harlem, back to the bayou, and on to a black township in Oklahoma before ending in San Francisco.

The novel begins on Wednesday, March 15, 1916. (Every chapter starts with a date.) Leroi Bordeaux Tremain, a young black man, is poling a skiff with his uncle in a midnight bayou in Louisiana. They're hunting for white gunrunners who have invaded their turf. The scene turns very hard-boiled very quickly, with Leroi skewering a number of men with a bow and arrow. The lad is as squeamish as Clint Eastwood about such things: "As far as [Leroi] was concerned, death was a natural consequence for those who were not careful or alert. His only concern about killing whites was the heat that it might bring down on his family."

I talked on the phone with Guy Johnson, the 50-something son of poet Maya Angelou who lives in Oakland. He told me he wanted to create a character who would answer the question: Can a man kill and not be evil? The writer pointed out how violent America was during the first third of this century -- racial violence, union and antiunion murders, bloody strikes, riots.

Certainly Tremain displays this historical American capacity for violence, but he is not, I think, an evil character. After killing the gunrunners, he joins the Army to lie low and ends up on a battlefield in France. Johnson has crafted the next 40-some pages of battle as finely as Hemingway. Sharp, compact prose. Everything action and dialogue. Indeed, during our conversation, Johnson professed deep love for "Papa."

On the battlefield, Leroi finds that the black units are used as cannon fodder, so the white American officers and the Germans become a single enemy. After Leroi nearly shoots a captain, an older black soldier says, "I've been part of this man's army for over twenty years. I rode with the Rough Riders in Puerto Rico. We were still called 'buffalo soldiers' then. There's been many a time that I had my sights on a white officer and a couple times I had to go ahead and pull the trigger, but I never did it in a way that would bring dishonor on the reputation of the Negro fighting man."

Leroi's unit must perform a suicide mission and prevent the retreating Germans from blowing up a bridge. Not to wreck the drama, but after the guns go silent, Leroi is given his nickname, the King of Death. (He and his comrades also find a crate of German gold.)

After that battle, "King" Tremain engages in a "civilized" form of warfare and knuckle fights a black sergeant on Saturday, March 16, 1918. In such fights, a line is scratched in the dirt -- hence the title of the book -- and the two fighters stand on opposite sides. "At a preordained signal the fight would begin, then the line could be crossed. In gambler's rules, if one of the fighters suffered a knockdown, there was a break in the action. The man who delivered the blow returned to the scratch line and waited. The fighter who suffered the knockdown had to get up and walk back to the scratch line if he wanted to continue. If he did not...the man standing at the line was declared the winner."

Guess who wins the King fight...

The story then jumps forward two years to February 17, 1919. King is in Harlem running a club called the Rockland Palace Revue (which he bought with his German loot). With their display of gangsters and gunplay, the next 100 pages evoke the great hard-boiled saint Dashiell Hammett. King refuses to pay tribute to the white Mafia, so killers are sent to rub him out. In a wonderful set piece that would fit perfectly into Hammett's Red Harvest, Johnson has gangsters smoking cigarettes inside a limousine during a torrential downpour as a killer with a machine gun under his coat prowls a swanky Harlem restaurant searching for King. Our hero is not plugged, of course, and he ends up gunning down a half dozen mugs.

Soon afterward, King returns to Louisiana, where he ends up romancing 17-year-old Serena Baddeaux. Not that a love interest makes the book turn soft. Here King runs afoul of the local Ku Klux Klan (we learn that kyklos, the Greek word meaning "circle," is the origin of "Ku Klux Klan"), and a fair number of white sheets get blown away.

If you're familiar with my other columns, you know that excessive violence makes me worry about women readers. Not that violence is sexist, but it often excludes female readers. "Did women read the manuscript?" I asked Johnson.

He assured me they had. No one had problems with the violence.

Good. Let's get on with the story: After decimating the Klan in Louisiana, King and Serena travel to a black township in Oklahoma, a place similar to the one Toni Morrison created in Paradise. Of course, King doesn't find paradise in Oklahoma. He bucks the local authority. Bullets fly. And King and Serena end up in San Francisco, where an African American seer tells King the fates of his unborn sons and grandchildren.

Now, I've just condensed the last third of the book into a slight paragraph, but this book is epic in both the geography and history. And King is as complex as Mario Puzo's Godfather. Johnson told me that he saw King as a kind of freedom fighter, comparing him to the way a Native American might portray Geronimo. But later Johnson admits to me that he based King on his own grandfather -- a man who fought in World War I, had dangerous scrapes down South, and ended up in San Francisco during the 1930s living the life of an exotic gangster.

"Originally Standing at the Scratch Line was just back story," Johnson told me. "I was writing about King from his grandson's perspective. But somehow the character just seemed too one-dimensional. So I put that manuscript aside and told King Tremain's story as how he would see himself."

And what a great view this is. Johnson is modest in his accomplishments, but not his intentions. "I want to be a great novelist some day," he says. "Standing at the Scratch Line is like my first attempt to climb Mount Everest. I didn't get to the top, but I see the path."

I don't know about not reaching the top. Thinking of Hemingway, Guy Johnson certainly reached the peak of Kilimanjaro. To mix metaphors: If Guy Johnson ever wants to bare-knuckle fight the Great American Novel, guess who'll be standing triumphant at the scratch line?

David Bowman is the author of Let the Dog Drive and Bunny Modern.

Entertainment Weekly
As history it's hackneyed, but as entertainment it's never less than eminently readable.
From the Publisher
"Eminently readable."—Entertainment Weekly

"Tremain has the qualifications to be one of literature's most versatile heroes."—The Wall Street Journal

"An exuberant novel about dreaming big dreams and honoring black heroes. A page turner full of pride, energy and passionate people."—Black Issues Book Review

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Random House Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt

Wednesday, March 15, 1916  

The thick, low-lying fog covered the contours and waterways of the swamp. Only mature trees and shrubs were visible above the milky gray mist. Darkness was beginning to fade in the early morning light, creating the surreal landscape of a nightmare.

Two men propelled a flat-bottomed skiff quietly over the water. There were oars in the boat, but favoring the method practiced by bayou dwellers, both men used long poles. Trees loomed above them through the mist like towering observers as they poled their way down the narrow channels that coursed through a system of small islands. The silence was broken only by the distant bellow of alligators and the soft, incessant buzzing of voracious mosquitoes.

The man in the front took his pole out of the water and listened for sounds ahead. He motioned for his companion to stop poling. Somewhere to the right of the boat, there was an indistinct sound of human voices. High overhead came the long screeches of a pair of cranes calling to each other. The man in the front of the skiff turned and began unwrapping an oilskin bundle, in which there lay two bolt-action rifles, a quiver of arrows, and a homemade longbow. He directed his companion by hand signals to continue poling toward their right.

LeRoi Tremain followed his uncle's directions and quietly poled closer to their quarry. They were heading toward a large channel that fed directly into the gulf. Stealth was of maximum importance. The fog began to dissipate in areas that were close to the open waterways where there was a tidal current. They could not be sure that the mist would afford the same level of protection once they entered the channel.

Uncle Jake motioned for him to stop poling again, and the boat floated quietly forward. Off to their left, somewhere above them, a man coughed. LeRoi put his pole into the water to prevent the boat from continuing out into the channel. If they had continued on, they would have been caught between their quarry and a lookout man. His uncle motioned for him to take the bow and pointed in the direction of the cough. Picking up the bow, LeRoi slid over the side into the dark, brackish water. Jake handed him the quiver and squeezed his arm encouragingly.

LeRoi turned and waded slowly into the opaque vapor. A cold glove of water surrounded him up to his navel. He had to be careful, for he was near the edge of the channel and the waist-high depth dropped away to twelve feet. There could be no splashing. He strung an arrow in his bow and continued forward. He did not know whether he would need the arrow for the man or an alligator, but he intended to be prepared.

The man he was looking for was probably up in one of the trees, which were looming as shadowy presences above him. Twenty feet further into the murkiness, he felt a breeze blowing and the beginnings of the current moving on his right. He was getting too close to the edge of the channel. He changed his direction to angle to his left and waded through a particularly dense patch. When he emerged, a large shadow spun and stood watching him. It was the largest swamp deer he had ever seen. Had he been hunting meat, he would have treasured this moment.

After determining that this intruder had no immediate hostile intention, the deer turned and moved away with a stately dignity. LeRoi needed something to draw the attention of the man in the tree, so he picked up a short, thick piece of branch and threw it hard at the disappearing flank of the deer. The branch hit the deer with a resounding whack and the deer took off at a dead run, splashing its way to safety.

LeRoi heard a surprised "What the hell?" and the chambering of a bullet in a lever-action rifle. As the deer ran away, he saw movement in a tree off to his right. The shadowy outline of a man holding a rifle could be seen about ten feet off the ground. Dropping down into the water until only his head was above its dark surface, LeRoi began his noiseless approach. He figured the man must be standing on some kind of hunting platform. He knew he could hit him from where he was, but he couldn't risk the man calling out. He had to move closer to be certain of a killing shot.

As he moved nearer, he saw that there was a small dinghy moored to the trunk of the tree. In the surreal landscape of gray and white vapor under the trees' overhanging shadowy presences, only the boat had movement as the pull of the current caused it to bump against projecting roots. The man had resumed his stillness and had attempted to hide himself once more. LeRoi could not see the man clearly, but he knew where his chest was because he could see his arm. He was no more than thirty feet away. When he rose out of the water, the bow was already stretched taut with an arrow. The bow had a sweet, bass twang as the arrow was loosed.

LeRoi heard a soft thud and then the clatter of the rifle caroming off the tree into the water. He continued forward cautiously. He had no doubts that the man was hit, but LeRoi couldn't be sure he was dead. He might be waiting with a revolver. He could see the man's foot projecting out beyond the dark outline of the tree. From the way the foot was turned, LeRoi concluded it was unlikely that the man could see him approaching, but he did not abandon his caution.

The arrow had to be collected. Not only would it serve as evidence against him, but good arrows were nearly impossible to make and were expensive to buy. All his arrows were store-bought and had a distinctive red and yellow shaft, which made it easier for them to be found once they were shot. Standing at the base of the tree, he could still see no movement. The foot was still in the same position, an augury of death.

LeRoi picked up the rifle that was leaning against a root with its stock in the water. He checked the barrel carefully for obstructions, then mounted the rough ladder that led up to the platform. Peering over the rim of the platform, he was surprised at what he saw. His arrow was deeply embedded in the man's rib cage, but that is not what surprised him. It was the badge on the man's chest. LeRoi had been expecting one of the DuMonts or their kin. Instead he found the corpse of a white man who had pale skin, greasy brown hair, and a handlebar mustache. He was obviously a deputy. As LeRoi pulled his arrow free and wiped it off on the body of the deputy, he pondered whether he and his uncle had walked into an ambush. Cupping his hands and blowing into them, he made two quick owl hoots, a signal of alarm.
His signal was answered by six or seven shots. Standing up, LeRoi could see the flash of a gun from another tree platform fifty yards away. As LeRoi shouldered the rifle and took aim, he saw the pinkness of the man's face on the other platform. He squeezed the trigger and saw the man's body jerk backward and fall into the sea of vapor. Several more shots were fired in the distance, but LeRoi couldn’t see where they came from.

It was clear the DuMonts had found out about the Tremains' raid and had somehow lured the sheriff's men out to take their side. LeRoi went through the deputy's pockets, checking for valuables. The man had only three dollars, which he took along with the badge. At the base of the tree, he put the rifle and the bow into the small dinghy and paddled out to find how his Uncle Jake had fared. Entering the channel, he let the current carry him. He levered another bullet into the rifle's chamber and set it against the gunwale; he knocked an arrow into his bow. Occasionally, he would row to avoid partially submerged logs and other debris, but for the most part he listened and stared into the fog.

Somewhere ahead of him to his left, a man cried out in pain. LeRoi dug his oar deep into the water to change direction and sent the dinghy slithering across the water. There was another cry, sounding like his Uncle Jake. Up ahead he saw movement around the dim outline of an island. He let the dinghy come to rest in a small thicket of bushes forty feet distant from the island. There were sounds of heated conversation.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Meet the Author

After completing college in Ghana, Guy Johnson managed a bar on Spain's Costa del Sol, ran a photo-safari service from London through Morocco and Algeria, and worked on oil rigs in Kuwait. Most recently he worked in the local government of Oakland, California, for more than twenty years. He lives in Oakland with his wife and son. He is the son of the author Maya Angelou.

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Standing at the Scratch Line 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 64 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Excellent...riveting, a great story.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
i'm on book two of "Standing At The Scratch Line" and reading it too fast. Filled with life lessons and full of Heroes. Can hardly wait until Guy Johnson writes again.
Onji1908 More than 1 year ago
I could not put this book down. Very very addictive! Guy Johnson does an excellent job weaving a story through time and eras! So loved this book
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
King Tremain is a all true man. I read this books years ago and now I have purchased it for my Nook. It's one of those books you want to have in your permanent library. The story line and characters come together seamlessly. It's really the stuff that makes real good movie material. Would love to see it as a series on HBO but I don't think 2012 is ready for King Tremain. But I am.
Guest More than 1 year ago
could not put this book down. it has become the best book i have ever read...hands down. king tremain was a true man among men. if you don't think this is the best book you've ever read... ya'll better say joe, cause you sho don't know!
Shamize More than 1 year ago
One of the best books written 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved it but I found the ebook edition buggy. The page load was not smooth on mny occasions and the font was not always clear. I frequently restarted my Nook Color while reading. Gripping storytelling by Guy Johnson. I hope the second novel is less buggy than the first.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
One of the best books I have ever read!! I wonder why he doesnt have many book publications....I would read all of them!
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Ladypearl More than 1 year ago
This is a wonderful series. I fell in love with King and his grandson. I could not put this book down and when I did Immediately started on Echos of a distant summer. These books have spoiled me and I always look for another by Guy Johnson
EHJ More than 1 year ago
The writing is so informative and interesting that it is difficult to put the book down. The author has done considerable research about the time period in history that is often misintrepreted and misleading. I especially liked the diary style writing. I am reading this book because my book club suggested it; we decided to read it and discuss it in two sections (because of the volumne). The first discussion was very animated and interesting by every book club member. I am proud of the characters in the book because they embody the spirit of people that are strong, intelligent, insightful, and resilient. Our club has scheduled the sequel of this book.
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Dmastor More than 1 year ago
This book is my favorite book of all time! This book is everything that makes reading great.
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XpectMor More than 1 year ago
Our book club gave this book 9's and 10's. It was exciting from beginning to end. An adventure with a bit of history. Well worth the read.
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