Neo-gothic debut novel satirizes reality television

Lee Rozelle is an Alabamian, raised, he says, in “backwoods Alabama,” by which I think he means northeast Alabama. He also says he was raised by Miss Mamie, an old farm woman who “used an outhouse” and “cut the heads off chickens without much ado.”

Rozelle, now a professor of English at Montevallo, has a varied bibliography. He has published scholarly papers in journals such as “Twentieth Century Literature” and “Studies in the Novel,” has a good many publications in eco-criticism and has an enduring interest in the macabre. He is the author of “Zombiescapes & Phantom Zones” and has stories published in such places as the “Anthology of Bizarro.”

“The Ballad of Jasmine Wills,” his first novel is, as expected, “bizarro.”

Most of the action takes place in a mountainous region of Alabama in the barely fictional Tallapoochie National Forest, so it is a Southern novel, but don’t look for mules, cotton or civil rights demonstrations.

Jasmine Wells is definitely “gothic,” the characters “grotesque,” so that may be a good place to begin.

Our “heroine,” to stretch the meaning of the word to the breaking point, is Jasmine Wills, a low-ranking loan officer in the Tallopoochie Farmers bank. Of average height, Jasmine weighs 248 pounds. “Jasmine’s body contains latitudinal cracks between inner tubes that encircled her.”

Lonely, bitter, unhappy, and unpleasant, she repels any attempts to befriend her. There aren’t many.

Her eating is, to say the least, out of control. Jasmine begins the day with six sausage biscuits, washed down with a quart of Mello Yellow. Lunch is often “a jumbo tortilla chicken salad bowl slathered in nacho cheese dip.”

Ashamed, she tries to eat in secret: in her car, and in a stall of the ladies’ room.

Early in the story, Preston Price comes to Jasmine’s desk. After studies at the University of Alabama, Preston had been a celebrity in California starring in exercise videos such as the famous “Butt of Iron II,” but he has had a terrible accident and has a twisted spine. He is now bent and, like Jasmine, grotesque.

At this point the novel bears some resemblance to “The Truman Show.” Preston knows, but Jasmine doesn’t, that her life is being secretly recorded, every minute, everywhere. The cameras are tiny, undetectable and innumerable.

In a few pages, however, Jasmine will be kidnapped and kept captive in a gigantic white luminous egg-shaped cell in the forest where, again, she will be constantly digitally recorded.

She becomes a national celebrity livestreaming on “Diet Extreme,” aired on TBS, but without knowing it.

Preston and his partner Tick are co-producing this mega-hit.

Months pass.

Via Zoom, an exercise guru entices her day after day to stretch, bend, and as time goes by, do step training and running in place. She is tortured with self-help videos.

A master chef, Annon Martiz, prepares fabulous nouvelle cuisine, nutritious but low calorie, delivered by dumbwaiter. At first she rejects the meals outright, demanding tater tots.

In one nicely comic scene Chef prepares veal in an exquisite sauce. Food for the Caesars.

Jasmine thoroughly washes the veal in the sink, then between two pieces of flatbread, eats it as a burger. The chef’s failure and dismay went viral, of course. He and everyone else are being recorded perpetually, the feed sent to an editing site. The show airs weekly to a growing audience, which loves Jasmine and buys her diet meals, T-shirts, all the merch. Why? One might ask.

Finally, Jasmine is made aware of her fame and potential fortune but remains furious, seeking escape and revenge. She is now 122 pounds of angry muscle. Violence ensues.

“Jasmine Wills” is a vicious satire of the fictional producers Preston and his partner Tick, but also a commentary on the actual American TV audience, tasteless and voyeuristic, apparently with no lives of their own, who watch “The Kardashians,” “Big Brother,” “Survivor,” “Jersey Shore” and literally 100 other TV reality shows.

Rozelle’s novel, with its over-the-top, perverse comedy, pushes the envelope to absurdity, maybe.

Maybe not.

Don Noble’s newest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors.

“The Ballad of Jasmine Wills”

Author: Lee Rozelle

Publisher: Montag Press

Pages: 281

Price: 16.95 (Paperback)

Leave a Comment