Lee Rozelle is an Alabamian, raised, he says, in “backcountry Alabama,” by which I believe he means northeast Alabama. He also says he was raised by Miss Mamie, an old farmer who “used an outhouse” and “cut off the heads of chickens without too much ceremony”.
Rozelle, now an English teacher at Montevallo, has a varied bibliography. He has published scientific articles in journals such as “Twentieth Century Literature” and “Studies in the Novel”, has numerous 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 places such as the “Bizarro Anthology”.
“The Ballad of Jasmine Wills”, her 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’s a Southern romance, but don’t look for the mules, cotton or civil rights protests. .
Jasmine Wells is definitely “gothic”, the characters “grotesque”, so maybe that’s a good place to start.
Our “heroine,” to stretch the meaning of the word to breaking point, is Jasmine Wills, a low-ranking loan officer at Tallopoochie Farmers Bank. Of average height, Jasmine weighs 248 pounds. “Jasmine’s body contains latitudinal cracks between the air chambers that surrounded her.”
Lonely, bitter, unhappy and unpleasant, she rejects any attempt to befriend her. There are not a lot.
His eating is, to say the least, uncontrollable. Jasmine starts the day with six sausage cookies, washed down with a liter of Mello Yellow. Lunch is often “a bowl of jumbo tortilla chicken topped with nacho cheese dip.”
Ashamed, she tries to eat in secret: in her car, and in a stall in the ladies’ room.
At the start of the story, Preston Price comes to Jasmine’s office. After studying at the University of Alabama, Preston had been a celebrity in California with exercise videos such as the famous “Butt of Iron II”, but he had a terrible accident and had a twisted spine. He is now bent and, like Jasmine, grotesque.
At this point, the novel looks a bit like “The Truman Show.” Preston knows, but Jasmine does not, that his life is being secretly recorded, every minute, everywhere. The cameras are tiny, undetectable and countless.
Within a few pages, however, Jasmine will be kidnapped and held captive in a gigantic, bright white, egg-shaped cell in the forest where, again, she will be constantly digitally recorded.
She becomes a national celebrity live on “Diet Extreme”, broadcast on TBS, but without knowing it.
Preston and his partner Tick co-produce this mega-hit.
Via Zoom, an exercise guru urges him day after day to stretch, bend and, over time, step-train and run in place. She is tortured with self-help videos.
A great chef, Annon Martiz, prepares fabulous new cuisine, nutritious but low in calories, delivered by dumbwaiter. At first, she rejects meals outright, demanding tater tots.
In a beautifully comical scene, the chef prepares veal in an exquisite sauce. Food for the Caesars.
Jasmine carefully washes the veal in the sink, then between two slices of pancake, eats it as a burger. The chef’s failure and dismay goes viral, of course. He and all the others are permanently recorded, the stream sent to an editing site. The show airs weekly to a growing audience, who love Jasmine and buy her diet meals, t-shirts, all the merchandise. Why? One might wonder.
Finally, Jasmine is made aware of her fame and potential fortune but remains enraged, seeking escape and revenge. She now weighs 122 pounds of angry muscle. Violence ensues.
“Jasmine Wills” is a vicious satire of fictional producers Preston and her partner Tick, but also a commentary on the tasteless, voyeuristic, seemingly lifeless real American television audience watching “The Kardashians,” “Big Brother”, “Survivor”, “Jersey Shore” and literally 100 other reality TV shows.
Rozelle’s novel, with its exaggerated and perverse comedy, pushes the envelope to the absurd, perhaps.
Don Noble’s latest 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
Price: 16.95 (Paperback)