The Merch, the debut novel from Jimmy Hager, is a gritty, grimy and enthralling story of Charleston, SC in the early 1970s.
Charleston is typically presented to the tourist as a museum piece instead of a real city. A place to come visit and see where something once happened, then go get a good meal in one of its many fine restaurants. If not presented as something that static, then it is a center of cultural refinement full of chamber music, highly choreographed dance, an annual opera debut, and other high culture events. In a more lively incarnation allowed it by the Chamber of Commerce, the city is offered as a beach resort with so much more in the way of entertainment for the whole family than one finds in lesser beach locations of the sort. Finally, if one watches Bravo’s Southern Charm, the city’s elite comes off as a collection of deadbeat rednecks who have a lot of money and dress well.
All of these elements are included in The Merch. The Charleston of Hager’s new novel is a living thing. This is pre-Spoleto Charleston, a city that did not have the South’s, some claim the Continent’s, best restaurants, as it does today. The Charleston of those days made little pretense to being the cultural center it is today. That Charleston was a metropolitan area with dives instead of bars and saloons. That Charleston had jazz, if you knew where to find it. It had southern rock and R&B and plenty of liquor and drugs crammed into places like The Merch, the old Merchant Seamen’s Hall. That Charleston had no central sewer collection and treatment system. Recreational sailors would often encounter untreated human waste floating in the harbor. Occasionally, I grant you, rarely, a pleasure boat might cruise past a dead body. That Charleston was a wild and wide open city composed of cultures steeped in the rhythms of the Caribbean Sea Islands and West Africa, the various waves of European immigrants, primarily Jews, Irish, Poles, and Italians, as well as the famed second sons of English and French settlers. That Charleston had an “off the books” economy at least equal to the economy you could tell the IRS about.
Pre-Spoleto Charleston was one of those magical places in geography and time that allowed heterogeneous cultures abide side by side, blending their superstitions as well as their ethnic knowledge and understanding in strange and, sometimes, dangerous ways.
The Merch tells a story of this time and place and does so with a voice so true and so eloquent, that the reader to compelled to engage the world presented and live the story with the characters he/she finds there. This story isn’t a mere read; it is an experience. It is an experience as vibrant and exciting as any amusement park ride, as sensually intoxicating as any rock and roll concert, as invigorating and gut wrenching as any NASCAR race.
The Merch is available now in ebook format from all the major outlets (Nook, Scribd, Kindle) and will be in local bookstores within a week. Do yourself a favor, buy, borrow or steal this book and read it. Just don’t be surprised to find yourself breathing through flared nostrils, panting and itching to be part of it, all the way to the end.