Boris Vian’s I Spit on Your Graves

Boris Vian  introduced Miles Davis to filmmaker Louis Malle, resulting in Davis’s haunting score to Malle’s 1958 Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (released in the US as Elevator to the Gallows or Frantic).

He drank and chatted with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir in the late-night cafe society of the romanticized Saint-Germain-des-Prés and even wrote the “Chroniques du Menteur” column for Sartre’s Les Temps Modernes.

He protested French involvement in Indochina with his 1954 antiwar song “Le Déserteur.” He lived one hell of a life, one that becomes extraordinary when seen in full.

And yet, though a cult icon in France and much of Europe, the Boris Vian renaissance has yet to take root among American readers, despite a healthy number of his works receiving English translations in the past decade.

Born outside Paris in 1920, Vian had the puckish temerity not only to excel at whatever he did but do it with a mirthful brio. Though educated as an engineer, he played trumpet and began hobnobbing with American jazz musicians who passed through Paris in the 1930s and ’40s. He didn’t get published until after World War II and before his 1959 death he completed ten novels, four short-story collections, seven plays, three books of poetry, jazz criticism and other reviews, hundreds of songs, and opera librettos, and he translated American crime writers into English—all before a congenital heart condition claimed his life at 39.

I Spit on Your Graves, originally published as J’irai cracher sur vos tombes by Editions du Scorpion, is Vian’s most infamous outing—although more for its provenance. It appeared in French as a work of translation by Vian, ostensibly written by an African-American author by the name of Vernon Sullivan. With its tale of lusty American high school students getting entangled in one man’s thirst for revenge, the book might have stayed a prurient curiosity were it not for two overlapping factors. The first was the activity of Daniel Parker, an architect who led a group called the Association of Social and Moral Action that first targeted the sexually frank novels of Henry Miller and then set its sights on Sullivan’s novel. But what really catapulted J’irai cracher sur vos tombes into infamy was when a copy of the book was found in the Parisian motel room in which salesman Edmond Rougé strangled his mistress. By 1948 Vian appeared in court admitting that he was the author of the novel and that Vernon Sullivan was an invented pen name. (Vian would publish four novels as Vernon Sullivan, all riffing on American pulp stories.) On July 3, 1949, the book was officially banned—and would remain so until reissued in 1973.

In fact, it could be argued that this novel actually killed Vian: he reportedly died while watching Michel Gast’s 1959 movie adaptation of it.

The novel certainly earned this notoriety. Spit tells the story of Lee Anderson, a 26-year-old man who takes a job at a bookstore in the small Southern town of Buckton to carry out a revenge plot. Anderson is African-American but can pass for white, much like his younger brother, who was lynched when the father of the young white woman he was in love with found out what he was. Anderson aims to strike back with extreme prejudice: he plans on seducing and the killing the richest, most entitled piece of Southern white pussy he can find.

And that’s it for plot. Anderson narrates the story in a modest bit of James Cain–like hard-boiled first-person, a loner who shows up in town, settles into his job, and waits for his prey. Anderson hooks up with bobby-soxers Jicky, Judy, and their pal Dick, and Anderson has a fine time getting liquor for them, skinny-dipping by the river, and taking Jicky or Judy almost whenever he feels like it. When this gang’s affluent pal Dexter introduces Anderson to the Aisquith daughters, though, he knows he’s found what he’s looking for. The Aisquiths made their rum fortune on the backs of Haitian plantation workers, and their comely 20-year-old lush daughter Jean and her 15-year-old sister Lou will do nicely, thank you very much.

Like those of the American pulp novels that inspired Vian here, Spit’s plot is Spartan and schematic, and he wastes no time developing ideas or characters who don’t fit into its accelerating momentum. Unlike the prose in some of those mid-century dime novels, though, Vian’s language retains a sharp bite. The novel is intentionally over the top, and its tales of hedonistic excess, outlandish descriptions of well-developed teenage anatomy, and downright outlandish depictions of sex—including a still-shocking instance of necrophilic sodomy—hit with as visceral a punch as anything by contemporary literary shockers. It’s incredibly sexist, unabashedly cruel, and it takes readers along on the morally dubious premise that one act of distressingly common American racism deserves an act of premeditated sexual homicide.

And since its reintroduction to English readers—thanks to Tam Tam Books in 1998 in America,  and Canongate in the U.K. in 2001—this salacious content is typically what critics take away from the novel. A 2003 Guardian review calls it a “fusion of prime US pulp and French sado-eroticism.” A review in the fall 2000 issue of the Review of Contemporary Fiction digs beneath the surface a bit, claiming that “while reading the lurid story, readers are encouraged to conflate social criticism of race relations with sheer titillation.” British cultural provocateur Stewart Home plumbs the novel’s political subtext more complexly in a 2004 issue of Mute magazine, only to arrive at a more orthodox leftist response to what he sees as Vian’s conventional liberalism: “While Lee Anderson’s desire for revenge is understandable, the manner in which he goes about this settling of scores is blatantly flawed. While in our alienated society race is experienced as real, it is in fact culturally constructed and there is no such thing as racial justice.”

That observation is certainly fair, but to expect Spit to mete out a version of “racial justice” in some respects misses the point of Vian’s creative pith. He was an imaginative and prolific artist who cranked out work in a variety of genres, but an impish, irreverent streak runs through his output like a stripe of cream in black coffee. And Spit’s outlandishness is delivered in barbed awareness. It takes the form of a pulpy dime novel, because the hard-boiled yarn is where an idealized masculinity got to live out its fantasies of kicking against a the pricks of the ruling social order. Lee Anderson is a man who can hold his liquor and knows how to take care of these wanton women, because Vian is loading his racial dice with Puritanical sexual hysteria. A physically impressive black man violently working his way through barely legal white women? Surely there might be one or two pornography websites willing to deliver such images to heterosexual men in exchange for their credit card number.

The novel’s hyperbole, however, is strikingly juxtaposed against its devastating final image: Spit ends with Anderson’s already dead body strung up on a rope. The justice actually carried out in the novel isn’t Anderson’s personal vendetta—it is far more cynically aware than to be so provincially convenient. The institutional justice that the novel ends on responds to the story’s two vividly depicted and hard-to-stomach sexual murders with an act of heinously ordinary racism. The crime punished by the novel’s social order is Anderson’s being  guilty of being black but looking white. I Spit on Your Graves isn’t a juicy revenge saga; it’s a visceral novel of passing presented as a different sort of crime staple: the long con.

Stories of passing, though not unique to American fiction, occupy a thorny place in American literature because of the country’s still painful racial history. A biracial American born during her centuries of slavery wasn’t exactly the outcome of two consenting adults. As a result, many novels of passing come from the point of view of the passee—such as James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, Nella Larsen’s Passing, Jessie Fauset’s Plum Bun. In this manner, African-American writers could explore racism as distanced observer, as if reporting back to the reader on how racism worked when not the object of it. In the process, though, these novels also often explored a conflict in the individual, the anxiety of looking one way but feeling another. That crisis often inadvertently incarcerates identity in the prison house of language, where “white” and “black” become choices from which there might not be any turning back.

For Lee Anderson, “white” and “black” are merely options he moves between as his needs dictate. He’s an improvisational actor performing a role to reach a desired end: a con man. The way  he works Lou and Jean Aisquith—playing on their vulnerabilities, their selfish desires, their sibling rivalries—unfolds like a confidence game. Passing isn’t Anderson’s albatross, it’s his trump card.

That may sound like a rather speculative interpretation of Vian’s controversial novel, but the idea of an African-American who can pass for white as con man was assiduously honed by that lodestar of African-American crime fiction, Robert Beck—better know by his pen name, Iceberg Slim. This street-lit titan penned two books about the most legendary con man who ever came out of a Chicago ghetto, White Folks, whose blue eyes, light hair, and fair skin enabled him to work his magic from Chicago into Canada in Trick Baby and Long White Con.

And the subversive wrinkle of these crime yarns isn’t what they have to say about the man doing the passing, but what they say about the society in which he passes. Lee Anderson and White Folks see race in American for what it is—a socially created lie that people use to rationalize and forgive their inhuman cruelty. Of course, armed with that awareness, they realize everybody else is a potential mark, operating in a literary realm where racial presumptions make people prime candidates to be fleeced.

The arts criticism and reporting of Baltimore City Paper arts editor Bret McCabe has appeared in the New York Sun, New Times LA, the alternative-weekly The Met, and a handful of papers, weeklies, and magazines that haven’t gone out of business.