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Early in “Kill ’em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul,” James McBride recounts a meeting with a mysterious man claiming to have “the James Brown story. The authentic one. From the family.” McBride, a National Book Award winner and an accomplished musician in his own right, knew it would be difficult to tell the full story well. Brown bragged about fabricating his autobiography, and his associates are famous for keeping his secrets.

McBride tried to pass the assignment off to a writer whom he considered better suited to the task, but he eventually changed his mind.

The book became a labor of love for McBride, and he set out to establish that Brown is “as important and as influential in American history” as Frederick Douglass or Harriet Tubman. Through exhausting efforts, McBride unlocked a few parts of Brown’s story that previous biographers missed and rights bits of the record that others got wrong. It’s clear that McBride’s deep commitment to improving Brown’s legacy allowed him greater access to Brown’s friends and associates than previous biographers enjoyed.

McBride tries to show us the man in full. He considers Brown’s childhood, his rise through the Chitlin’ Circuit to superstardom, his demons, his marriages and the litigation and chaos touched off by his death. The South emerges as a distinct character, and McBride devotes ample time to explaining how Brown was a product of the troubled soil from which he rose. Many of those who worked with Brown on stage get their moment in the spotlight, and some who worked for him offstage are solidified within his history. McBride sees Brown as an underappreciated genius, and he’s troubled by the focus on Brown’s financial and addiction issues and the comparative lack of attention to his vast influence on music.

Brown’s story is hard to uncover. He was intensely private, and the people who really knew him honor his memory with unwavering discretion. Even those with axes to grind seem to have set them down. They appear motivated by respect for Brown, by well-founded distrust of those who seek to tell his story and by adherence to Southern ways, admonishing against speaking ill of the dead.

While McBride’s considerable skill as a writer is evident in significant stretches, “Kill ’em and Leave” is undermined by redundancies, and some readers may tire of his penchant for bold, unsupported claims. In the latter pages, McBride seems to run out of energy.

Ultimately, we learn that writing about James Brown is like writing about the ocean; the subject is vast and full of mysteries. It’s difficult to fathom a tidy rendering of such a complex man, but McBride deserves credit for this earnest attempt.

Michael Kleber-Diggs is a poet and essayist. He lives in St. Paul.

Kill 'em and Leave
By: James McBride.
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau, 232 pages, $28.

Kill ’em and Leave

By: James McBride.

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau, 232 pages, $28.