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It is hard to know what kind of book to expect from an Australian Jewish TV prankster who decides to spend a few months in Mississippi investigating the murder of a possibly closeted white supremacist.
John Safran’s “God’ll Cut You Down” is a self-conscious attempt at the suddenly very trendy old genre of true crime. It was a bestseller last year in Australia, probably owing to Safran’s native fame as a cross between Johnny Knoxville and Bill Maher. Here, in a country lousy with both crimes and stories about them, it might not make as big a splash. However, readers who get the hang of Safrans quirky rhythms, shameless honesty and sly humor will devour it.
Safran makes his living pranking bigots on a show called Race Relations. That is how he met Richard Barrett, the head of the National Movement. Most of Barrett’s neighbors were unaware of his views, while other racists dismissed him as a self-promoter. “White supremacists are always kvetching about each other,” Safran observes, in the kind of plainspoken aside only a charming outsider can properly deliver. After learning that Barrett was stabbed to death by Vincent McGee, a black man who was providing him with yard work and possibly sexual favors, Safran is bent on writing the next “In Cold Blood.” Like Truman Capote, he ends up half-befriending the incarcerated killer and half-betraying him. But sometimes Vincent gets the better of him, finagling cash and even, ultimately, an engagement ring.
Safran’s wrestling matches with his baffling story are partly a performance, like one of Andy Kaufman’s fights, or Safran’s own documentaries. Like the wildly popular “Serial” podcast, Safran's book avoids the tidy conclusions more typical of the genre, reveling in the messy complications instead. Both projects are reinventing true crime, mostly by making it truer.
For reviews of "God’ll Cut You Down" and many other books, check out Vulture.com, New York Magazine’s center for all things culture.