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December 2018, Week 4

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 		 [Mosley’s new book, writes reviewer Nathans-Kelly, "is as
provocative and morally instructive as anything he’s written.” ]
[https://portside.org/] 

 PORTSIDE CULTURE 

 JOHN WOMAN   [https://portside.org/2018-12-26/john-woman] 

 

 Steve Nathans-Kelly 
 September 4, 2018
New York Journal of Books
[https://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/book-review/john-woman] 

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 _ Mosley’s new book, writes reviewer Nathans-Kelly, "is as
provocative and morally instructive as anything he’s written.” _ 

 , 

 

Walter Mosley

John Woman

Atlantic Monthly Press

ISBN: 978-0-8021-2841-6

The challenge for any novelist of a decidedly didactic bent comes in
striking a satisfying balance between heavy handed sermonizing and
engaging storytelling that effectively masks its preach-and-teach
pretensions. In both the genre and literary fiction of Walter Mosley,
assertive moralizing and punch-packing narrative typically go blow for
blow.

In Mosley’s best-known work, the magnificent character arc of
reluctant Watts detective Easy Rawlins mirrors the mid-20th century
protest fiction of Chester Himes in pairing relentless object lessons
on what it’s like to be black and poor in America with irresistible
hard-boiled crime fiction. Mosley has also written starker racial
parables, such as _The Man in My Basement _(2003) and _Fortunate Son
_(2006), that defy the easy categorization of genre fiction and plumb
the consequences of white supremacy as powerfully as any fiction of
the last 20 years.

Mosley’s new book, _John Woman_, though it only intermittently
delivers the tautly rendered violence and suspense of his detective
fiction, is as provocative and morally instructive as anything he’s
written.

In an opening act that plays like a cross between John Irving’s
_Last Night in Twisted River_ and Giuseppe Tornatore’s 1990 film
_Cinema Paradiso_, Mosley introduces a handful of colorful characters
in the orbit of young Cornelius Jones, beginning with his libertine
Italian-American mother, Lucia, a “woman of red blood and chocolate
cake” who speaks frankly of her sexual history with her son, laughs
uproariously, and wears “dresses that flashed glimpses of the full
length of her legs.”

Lucia’s saucy vivacity contrasts sharply with Herman Jones,
Cornelius’ African American father and Lucia’s heartbroken former
husband. Herman is a cautious, erudite, and philosophical invalid who
lectures his son on a notion of history open to endless interpretation
and inextricably linked with the present and future: “The person who
controls history controls their fate. The man who can tell you what
happened, or did not happen, is lord and master of all he surveys.”

As the book begins, teenage Cornelius, already balancing schoolwork
with his father’s constant care, secretly takes over Herman’s job
as projectionist at an East Village movie theater that shows only
silent films. Always a quick study, Cornelius masters the workings of
the theater’s ancient projector.

Confronted one night in the projection room by the theater’s
volatile owner, who demands to know Herman’s whereabouts and
threatens to fire him, Cornelius impetuously kills the man. He
methodically clears the crime scene, packing the corpse in a trunk and
sealing it in the projection room closet.

In true _Twisted River _fashion, _John Woman _pivots from this violent
scene to a new identity and new life. Following his father’s death,
Cornelius takes control of his fate, rewrites his own story, buries
his dark past, and moves on to City College and then Harvard. He
emerges as John Woman, a historian specializing in
“Deconstructionist Historical Devices.”

Woman is a confounding, controversial professor, given to sleeping
with coeds and rankling colleagues, admired and despised in equal
measure by students and faculty alike. He relentlessly upends
traditional pedagogy and spreads his father’s gospel at the New
University of the Southwest, an unconventional Arizona university with
conventional intradepartmental infighting and mysterious,
Illuminati-like overlords.

From readers’ first exposure to Professor Woman, Mosley takes some
substantial risks. In Woman’s first lecture, he baffles his students
with a scattershot discourse on the impossible task of historical
inquiry: “We are like the blind prophets guessing at the nature of
an elephant—only the elephant is in another room, situated on the
opposite side of the globe, while we still believe the world is
flat.” Awaiting him at the end of class, Woman finds the dean of
social sciences, who declares the lecture “magnificent.” It’s an
uneasy moment for readers not quite sold on the magnificence of what
they’ve just read, who might justifiably wonder if Mosley has
unwittingly overplayed his hand. But as the dean flashes a “familiar
huckster smile,” the author’s seeming self-congratulation gives
way to unspecified subterfuge, and the game is afoot.

John Woman emerges as an odd sort of historian concerned less with the
details, movers, and shapers of history than the insignificance of
human actors in the face of broader historical forces and the
insufficiency of human intellects to grasp them. Woman’s sense of
the crushing inevitability of history arguably befits a fugitive whose
own life is governed by the ticking time bomb of a _Mayor of
Casterbridge­­_-like hidden past.

Mosley’s one overtly historical work, the novella-length essay
_Workin’ on the Chain Gang: Shaking off the Dead Hand of History
_(2000), resembles only in part the type of treatise John Woman might
write. Indeed, Woman would most likely dismiss it as “an attempt to
re-create so-called actual events according to the political, social
or religious convictions of the author.” In _Workin’ on the Chain
Gang_, as in most of his fiction, Mosley works with notions of race as
constructed within American society. To John Woman, “black
history” itself rests on too many false constructs to operate in any
useful theoretical space.

But it’s not so much where _Workin’ on the Chain Gang _reflects on
the past as where it looks to one possible future that points directly
to the ideas Mosley wrestles with in _John Woman_, imagining a model
for the new century where the “chains” of prejudice, assumptions,
and representations give way to a revolution of ideas and
possibilities.

If Mosley sets out to teach revolutionary ideas in _John Woman _as the
book’s titular character does, those ideas are far more elusive than
the hard-won, harder-to-ignore lessons of, say, Socrates Fortlow in
_Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned_. Mosley’s message is much
more ambiguous here, but the narrative retains his trademark crackling
intensity, and the author’s voice is as instructive and
authoritative as ever.

  

Steve Nathans-Kelly is a freelance writer and editor. Many of his book
reviews have appeared in online magazine Paste.

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