Friday, March 06, 2009

Killing Johnny Fry by Walter Mosley

Walter Mosley has been transcending categories for some time now -- first he was a promising mystery novelist, then one of the premier African-American writers of our time, and, finally, he seems to have leveled up to being considered as simply one of our better and more interesting writers, without any qualifiers. And he's taken a winding path to that end, probably leaving as many old readers behind as he's picked up new ones. There was a time when I'd read every one of Mosley's novels -- of course, he was focusing on the "Easy Rawlins" mystery series then, and only publishing about a novel a year. In the last decade, he's stepped up production greatly and spread into many different areas -- other more-or-less mystery series, science fiction, non-fiction, a Young Adult novel, explicitly literary novels, and this book, which is quite explicit in a very different way.

Killing Johnny Fry is subtitled "A Sexistential Novel," which is one way of describing it. It's a book that's all about sex -- not purely in itself, but as the motivator of human behavior. But there is an awful lot of sex in this book, and it's mostly porn/erotica-style sex: absolutely wonderful for all involved, with no fumbles or missteps or flagging attention, and with a succession of young and pneumatic women for our somewhat older and probably not gorgeous male lead. And I'm going to talk about some of that sex during this review, so -- if such things offend or fluster you -- you might want to move on to reading something else.

That lead is Cordell Carmell, a freelance translator in New York on the verge of middle age -- though, in his head, he's been at least middle aged (slow, set in his ways, tired) for his entire adult life. He has a comfortable routine, with a weekends-only girlfriend, Joelle, enough work to keep him busy and living reasonably well, and no real ambitions. But then one day he decides to surprise Joelle during the week -- and, in best cliche fashion, discovers her in the middle of having sweaty, deeply satisfying sex with a white man, Johnny Fry. Cordell sees much more than he wants to -- even rushing back once when he misinterprets Joelle's cries -- but they never see him.

And so a shocked Cordell decides he has to kill Johnny: not so much because he's fucking Cordell's girlfriend, or because he's white -- though those are both considerations -- but because he has an impressive penis (impressive even to a black man, goes the subtext here) which Joelle was ecstatic to take anally. Cordell has a particularly impassioned mental speech about how black women's anuses are only for the sexual use of black men -- though, to be fair, that was in the immediate aftermath, when he was angry about every aspect of the cuckolding and creating new reasons to be offended. Mosley does focus on the sticky details, here and later, but he's also unsparing in his depiction of Cordell's mental state; the book stays deep inside his head the entire time, and the thought of Joelle and Johnny having sex torments him from the moment he sees it.

To step back from the plot for a moment, anal sex is something of a recurring motif in Killing Johnny Fry, occupying about the place it does in modern porn -- difficult at first but intensely, uniquely pleasurable for a woman, and similarly wonderful for the penis-owner. But there are also two scenes in which a man is the receptive partner -- only of a dildo in the hands of a woman; Johnny Fry's transgressions don't go anywhere near male homosexuality -- and for a man, being taken anally is purely painful and demeaning, with an obligatory mention of smeared bodily fluids. For a novel that's aiming to be transgressive, some things are awfully traditional.

Back to the plot: because of that event, Cordell misses an appointment in Philadelphia -- instead, he holes up in his apartment with strong liquor and a new porn DVD. But he's soon back in the world, and suddenly sex is all around him -- particularly younger, highly attractive women who are interested in having sex with him. If my count is right, he has really, really good sex over the next week with Joelle (who's amazed and surprised at his new ardor); Lucy Carmichael, an aspiring photographer in her '20s whom he also agrees to act as an agent for; Sasha Bennett, a law student who lives upstairs from him (and has phone sex with another, female, neighbor at the same time); Monica Wells, a young mother who he met on the subway; and a woman in a sex club he knows only as Celia. That's a lot of nookie for a mousy fortysomething guy.

Along the way, Cordell also meets a porn star named Sisypha Seaman/Brenda Landfall -- after watching a DVD of her work and being introduced to her by the kind of amazingly thoughtful and caring phone counsellor who only exists in books like this -- and gets caught up in the investigation of a murder-suicide in his building. But he's mostly shedding his old life and creating a new one -- as a more driven, more sexual man, with a new job and as many women as he can handle.

(There's some very African-American-specific analysis that could be done of Cordell's changes; I'm not knowledgeable enough to do it, but this is all so blatant that even I can see the outlines of it.)

In the end, does Cordell kill Johnny Fry? Despite the title, that's not the point of the book at all. And there's no simple answer to the question, either.

Mosley has always come across as an instinctual writer, one who follows his ideas and obsessions wherever they lead him, and one who is willing to write blunt, uncomfortable, striking things if that's what the story demands. Killing Johnny Fry pushes that tendency even farther, in an unlikely direction -- but, then again, Mosley has also shown an acute knowledge of contemporary African-American literature and life, so we should have expected his take on urban erotica. This is not a novel to be taken entirely seriously -- it's a cartoon of itself at the best of times -- but it's definitely an interesting oddity for readers who're willing to go along with it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Lucy Carmichael? That was Lucille Ball's character's name on pone of her old TV shows. Too funny.

Jeff P.

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