- Soil (2015)
Jamie Kornegay was born in 1975 in Batesville, Mississippi. He graduated with a degree in creative fiction from the University of Mississippi. He and his wife Kelly have three children. Before opening his own book store Turnrow with his wife nine years ago in Greenwood, Mississippi, Kornegay worked at Square Books in Oxford and wrote and directed for Thacker Mountain Radio show. Kornegay says the idea for his first novel Soil came to him while he was living in Oxford where the gardens in northern Mississippi are sort of desolate little farm plots, nothing like gardens in the Delta.
Soil is the result of Kornegay’s life experience up to this point, his interest in farming, and the impact writer Barry Hannah had on him in college. In the novel, the main character Jay grows corn in his front yard. Kornegay’s own interest in growing heirloom tomatoes began several years ago when Alice Waters visited his bookstore, but he has pretty much given it up saying it is too difficult to grow thing organically in the Mississippi heat with the pests.
Kornegay has written for years but did not publish until he felt he had a tale worth publishing. Having a family and running a bookstore leaves him little time to write, so while writing Soil, he took week-long writing trips to a friend’s isolated cabin outside Black Mountain where he was inspired. However, he missed his family, saw a depressing movie, read again Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, (which he first read in the seventh grade) resulting in a novel that in places is disturbing.
Because he worked at Square Books in literary Oxford, Mississippi, and then at his own bookstore Turnrow, Kornegay has developed many contacts in the publishing industry. In Oxford he had access to writers like Larry Brown, Donna Tartt, William Gay, Tom Franklin and Richard Flanagan — all of whom have also visited TurnRow. In addition, driving authors to and from the airport or interviewing them for the bookstore newsletter provided a great opportunity to soak up their knowledge of writing and books. He also says he took the advice of Padgett Powell many years ago “to not talk about wanting to be a writer and instead just write.”
For his first novel, Soil, he follows organic farmer Jay Mize’s descent into paranoid delusion, which wrecks his family and brings him into conflict with a host of local townspeople. The novel is set in the Delta where there is large-scale farming. A disturbing novel, Soil traces one man’s struggle to survive in the Mississippi mudflats. According to Mississippi writer, Michael Farris Smith, in an article in Deep South Magazine, the Mississippi Delta landscape plays a central part in the downfall of the main character Jay Mize.” Smith continues, “An idealistic environmental scientist and farmer, Jay moves his wife and young son off the grid to a stretch of river bottom farmland in the hills, hoping to position himself as the forefront of an agricultural revolution.” The dream, however, is ruined with a year.
Kornegay is currently writing his second book.
Review of Soil
by Steve Yates (used with permission)
Imagine an A-frame overlooking Sardis Lake in which Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Larry Brown are locked in an epic drinking contest. In the dead of night, when they are face down at the table, Jamie Kornegay sneaks in and winds their DNA around his ball-point pen to craft a wonderful new strain.
“Soil: A Novel” is that powerful and tense of a proclamation, a new vine of wicked night flower. By daylight, Kornegay is a passionate and hardworking bookseller at his store, Turnrow Book Co. in Greenwood. But some of us have been fortunate enough to hear him read from his own fiction when it has appeared in “Stories from the Blue Moon Café” and “They Write Among Us.”
I recall Kornegay reading a story about a local physician whose outward life was as mundane as a dull clinician’s in an Anton Chekhov piece. But the doctor’s inner life was achingly rich. It was clear then something amazing was germinating.
Kornegay’s first full-length novel has sprouted, and if you take it home, it will consume you.
Three characters dominate the plot — Jay, the obsessive, failed farmer and former soil expert; Sandy, a teacher, enduring mother, and Jay’s estranged wife; and Deputy Danny Shoals, a pistol-wielding sex fiend cosseted by his uncle, the sheriff of Bayard County.
Stated so baldly, you might say, Oh, I can script this.
Not so fast. Kornegay succeeds in making sure that the language is muscular without ever being showy. And he delivers to the reader something believable but new at every turn. This is no small feat when crime novels are extruded in piles, and television has discovered that there are even cop stories in Kentucky, Louisiana and Wyoming.
National reviews of Soil have been glowing so far. But some give the impression that the novel allows a long lead up to Jay’s collapse. No. We join Jay in the midst of his obsessive spiral. His conspiracy-laden paranoia has driven his wife and son away. He’s broke; the utilities and phone are cut off. Everything he planted has been flooded and is covered in muck. But all that agony is summarized.
Then, like Larry Brown would, Kornegay heaps on the problems — why not add to Jay’s woe a dead body in his mucky field? We discover quickly Jay does not see the world as we do. Like a Dostoyevsky character, there is a devouring compulsion that propels him to do the wrong thing spectacularly almost every time.
Once we meet the Bayard County law in the person of Deputy Shoals, we begin to understand Jay’s seemingly extreme distrust of the authorities. Driving an unmarked 1970s Mustang called “the Boss,” Shoals never met a perquisite too brazen to procure. It is a real show of Kornegay’s ability that the reader not only tolerates but downright enjoys this Don Juan, until the deputy shows his flora of perversions.
Grounding the uproar is Sandy Mize, who has exhausted herself teaching and raising her little boy Jacob and trying to make ends meet while separated from Jacob’s father, Jay.
Very often, the most unforgettable language, both plain-spoken and hard-hitting, surrounds her scenes. At one heartbreaking moment, Kornegay narrates: “Father and son stood there in shamed silence, incapable of words, each discovering … how a woman’s tearful surrender can shatter all you ever thought you wanted.”
It is really Sandy’s ability to pick herself up and fight on, despite acres of male weakness and foolishness, that propels “Soil,” and makes the novel not just another crime story, not just another love triangle, not just a near-apocalypse in the backwaters. In Sandy, Kornegay finds a taproot of life, a living answer to his fiction’s great question: “Who are you going to be? Who will you be, alone in the dark?”
Novelist Steve Yates of Flowood, Mississippi, is the winner of the Juniper Prize for Some Kinds of Love: Stories (University of Massachusetts Press). He is the author of Morgan’s Quarry. His second novel, The Teeth of the Souls (Moon City Press) was published in 2015.