Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Review of "Murder in The Bayou: Who Killed the Women Known as the Jeff Davis 8?"

Review first appeared at the New York Journal of Books on September 12, 2016 http://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/book-review/murder-bayou-who-killed-women-known-jeff-davis-8

Who murdered the women known as the Jeff Davis 8? Is an unapprehended serial killer stalking the wetlands and byways of rural southern Louisiana? These are intriguing questions that have dogged law enforcement officials for nearly a decade. Located primarily in the southern reaches of Louisiana, the bayou is a defining feature of this unique region of the American South, and unlike the rest of the state, has its own pace, culture, and rules. The swamps and alligators might not be for everyone, but the Cajun people of the bayou feel right at home. Shadowy and often misunderstood, this region is often shrouded in mystery.

In 2014, HBO’s wildly successful and critically acclaimed television series True Detective debuted starring Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey. This series was instrumental in bringing renewed interest to this secretive section of the country. The show focused on a mismatched pair of Louisiana state police investigators hot on the trail of a serial killer who is preying on young women deep in the heart of Cajun country. Although this quirky series is a work of fiction, it is alleged to have been inspired by a series of real life unsolved murders that have occurred in and around Jefferson Davis Parish. These murders are collectively and nationally known as the Jeff Davis 8.
Between 2005 and 2009, the bodies of eight female prostitutes were discovered in and around the outskirts of Jennings, a small town and seat of Jefferson Davis Parish. The bodies of these young women were dumped along highways, dirt roads, swamps, and canals throughout the area. Ethan Brown, an investigative journalist, private investigator, and author examines this riveting and spellbinding case in his new book Murder in the Bayou: Who Killed the Women Known as the Jeff Davis 8?

“The many threads that linked the Jeff Davis women in life (sex work) and in death (elevated levels of cocaine and anti-depressants, possible death by asphyxia) led local law enforcement to investigate the Jeff Davis 8 as a serial killer case.” But Brown’s multi-\year investigation has raised serious doubts about such an idea. He provocatively speculates that the Jeff Davis 8 were murdered for “knowing too much,” and that these homicides were the direct result of Jennings' brutal criminal underworld. Although Jennings resembles a sleepy, out of the way place, looks can be deceiving. For many decades the area has been the epicenter of violent criminal activity centered on the Interstate 10 corridor that connects the Texas border to Lafayette.

“To most Jennings residents, the Boudreaux Inn was simply a dingy motel off the interstate. But to workers at the motel and players in the South Jennings underworld, the rundown inn had an outsized reputation. Powerful people, it was whispered, patronized the motel. Those who ran the business were well connected in Louisiana politics.” Brown goes even further, disturbingly suggesting that there is a connection between local law enforcement and other powerful players to keep the case unsolved due to involvement in the profitable drug trafficking and sex trade.

“In life and in death, the Jeff Davis 8 were cast as outsiders by the ruling elite. Sheriff Ricky Edwards infuriated friends and family of the victims by publicly proclaiming that the Jeff Davis 8 all shared a high-risk lifestyle. Most interpreted this to mean that they were unworthy of sympathy or significant law enforcement resources.” Brown goes on to write, “It’s a staggering body count for a town of approximately ten thousand residents. . . . Complex murder cases such as the Jeff Davis 8 can remain open for years, sometimes even decades. But it should have been obvious all along that the Jeff Davis 8 killings were not the handiwork of a serial killer.”

The narrative of Murder in the Bayou is well researched and easy to read. The author uses thousands of pages of public documents and records as well as hours of interviews to doggedly investigate and arrive at his titillating assumptions on how and why each of these women were murdered. This book is thought provoking and explosive. Its mesmerizing allegations and scandalous conclusions revolving around the realities of modern day class division and brutalities of the rural South will captivate true crime enthusiasts as well as anyone who enjoys a good murder mystery with political intrigue.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Review of "Existentialism and Excess" by Gary Cox

Review first appeared at http://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/book-review/existentialism-and-excess on September 7, 2016

“Whatever life holds in store for me, I will never forget these words: With great power comes great responsibility. This is my gift, my curse. Who am I? I'm Spiderman.” Actor Tobey Maguire spoke these words in the final scene of Columbia Pictures 2002 movie blockbuster Spiderman.

The character must have been reading a lot of stuff by French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre when he imparted that little nugget of wisdom. Nearly 40 years since his death, Sartre’s philosophical ideas still resonate within modern society and pop culture. He was one of the greatest philosophical thinkers and most versatile writers of his time and alongside his longtime companion Simone de Beauvoir was one of the leading figures in the French intellectual community of the 20th century.

Sartre was a principal proponent of Existentialism, a philosophical theory that stresses the individual's unique position as a self-determining agent responsible for the authenticity of his or her choices. Expanding on the 19th century writings of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, Sartre determined that if man is the maker of his own morality, then his greatest power is the freedom of choice. In the 1940s and 1950s, Sartre through scholarly and fictional works promoted and brought to the mainstream public these existential themes. A complex and captivating figure, Sartre intricately binds together his life, writings, and revolutionary thoughts.

Gary Cox, a Sartre specialist and author of Deep Thought, How to Be an Existentialist, The Sartre Dictionary, and Sartre: A Guide for the Perplexed once again tackles Sartre in Existentialism and Excess: The Life and Times of Jean-Paul Sartre. This easy to read and thought provoking biography explores all of the key events of the legendary philosopher’s life and skillfully examines the close connections between his radical thoughts and philosophical works. The author reconstructs the existentialist crises that helped shape Sartre’s life and concisely capsulizes his complex philosophical concepts so that they are easy to read and understand.

“Humankind . . . is a futurizing intention. The destiny of each of us is in our own hands. We make ourselves through our choices. We are even free to choose what is happening to us, to take it on board rather than bemoan it, to realize to the full our being-in-situation.”

Throughout Existentialism and Excess, Cox perceptively identifies the major entanglements, love triangles, friendships, and affairs that engulfed Sartre over his lifetime. In an engaging and accessible manner, the author is able to convey these fascinating interactions into simple literary and biographical context.

He draws from a vast array of published writings and other sources to support research that reveals titillating insights into Sartre’s complex persona including the extent to which he juggled, depended upon, and supported his many mistresses and the compulsive need he had to seduce women far more beautiful than he, despite his tepid sensuality. Cox writes, “His sense that he was physically ugly . . . led him to feel that a woman could not really enjoy his body. His successes with various woman gave him new found confidence . . .”

The author also candidly scrutinizes Sartre’s complicated and avant-garde relationship with Simone de Beauvoir. She was the cornerstone of his social circle, an intellectual equal, life-long companion, and philosophical sparring partner. Cox writes, “What is undoubtedly true is that without her [de Beauvoir’s] influence, Sartre’s philosophical contribution would have been different and less impressive.”

This book also studies Sartre’s many political flip-flops, seduction and conversion to Communist ideology, and steady health decline and eventual isolation in the 1960s and 1970s. All intrigues aside, however, Cox concludes, “Despite his (Sartre’s) neurotic desire to become one of the gods and immortals of philosophy and literature . . . his desire to become a name to conjure with the like of Plato, Descartes, Nietzsche, Proust, Flaubert or Dickens . . . Sartre was wise and realistic enough to comprehend that there is no such thing as true immorality.”

But Jean-Paul Sartre did create a legacy that is memorable and does not matter simply because he was a great writer, although his exceptional command of styles and genres expertly complemented his purpose. Sartre matters because so many fundamental points of his analysis of the human reality are right and true, and because their accuracy and veracity entail real consequences for our lives as individuals and in social groups.

Gary Cox’s Existentialism and Excess is a remarkably vivid and intimate biography that shows the existentialist legend had feet of clay, without in any way diminishing his contributions and greatness. If you are a fan of Jean-Paul Sartre, French intellectual life, philosophy, or biography, in particular, this first-rate account is highly recommended as a starting point for any study of this great man.