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I truthfully just don't get Charles Johnson.  He has the makings of a really first rate novelist, but for whatever reason--vanity about his ability to get away with it?, lack of confidence in the value of his work without it?, skewed perceptions?--he clutters up his work with magic and he strains for a vocabulary and an erudition that sound totally unnatural.  His National Book Award winner, Middle Passage (see Orrin's review), could have been a terrific book in the classic American nautical adventure tradition of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (see Orrin's review), Moby Dick, Billy Budd (see Orrin's review), Two Years Before the Mast, The Sea Wolf (see Orrin's review), etc..  But in mid-story he added on a storyline involving a mysterious African God and the whole thing went to heck in a handcart.  In Dreamer, he's up to the same tricks and it's a shame.

Johnson apparently wrote the book because he wanted to try to understand Martin Luther King as a man and a moral philosopher, absent all of the mythos that has grown up around his martyred memory as a civil rights leader.  He does an admirable job of recounting what writings and which theologians most influenced him and of presenting King, in his own words, giving sermons and speeches that develop his own philosophy.  But there is another entirely unnecessary, even destructive, plotline in the novel.  King's evil twin, Chaym Smith, appears and offers to act as his body double.  Smith is violent, profane and cynical but also widely read and deeply philosophical.  Johnson plays him off against King with Chaym taking the role of Cain and King of Abel.  this allows Johnson room for extended meditations on the Cain/Abel tale, the duality of good and evil, and so on.    Eventually, after coaching from aides, Chaym is able to pass for King at public events and even close associates can not tell the two men apart, so that on that fateful day in Memphis, we are no longer sure which one died.

Now, first of all, I just didn't feel that the Smith character added much to the story,  In fact, because he so often takes us away from the true Martin Luther king, he is more of a distraction, often bringing the narrative to a screeching halt.  But there's a bigger problem with this device; if you're going to use this kind of allegorical feature, you had better think through what you are saying with it.  Johnson does not appear to recognize how the comparison to Abel diminishes King.  Abel was after all a figure of virtual slavery.  He was the gatherer, living off the fat of the land, who found favor in God's eyes precisely because he lived as God intended Man to live before the Fall.  It is Cain who represents freedom and Man after the Fall, struggling to raise his own crops independent of God and being rejected by God for this very reason.  To allude to King as an Abel like figure, when he is actually one of the great freedom fighters in Man's history, seems to me to be a nearly unforgivable sin.  Moreover, the implication that King was a kind of passive, slave like creature does the man a great disservice.

Ultimately, Johnson has produced two books here--one good and one bad.  The sections where King is on stage are vibrant and thrilling.  They recapture some of the majesty of the man and the movement.  The portions featuring Chaym Smith are flashy, particularly as they allow him to use SAT worthy vocabulary words that trip off the tongue like boulders, but they cheapen the rest of the book.  He should have stuck to his knitting, dropped the doppelganger and ditched the dictionary.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (C)

  

Websites:

Book-related and General Links:
    -INTERVIEW: The Human Dimension   An interview with writer-philosopher Charles Johnson (Charles Mudede, Real Change)
    -INTERVIEW: A Conversation with Charles Johnson:  The National Book Foundation presents a conversation with National Book Award Winner Charles Johnson, author of Middle Passage (interview by Diane Osen, Publishers Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of  Ten Indians By Madison Smartt Bell  Karate Kids (Charles Johnson, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of THE BLUE DEVILS OF NADA A Contemporary American Approach to Aesthetic Statement. By Albert Murray (Charles Johnson, NY times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of   INDEPENDENCE DAY By Richard Ford  (Charles Johnson, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of HEROISM AND THE BLACK INTELLECTUAL Ralph Ellison, Politics, and Afro-American Intellectual Life. By Jerry Gafio Watts   (Charles Johnson, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of   MILLROY THE MAGICIAN By Paul Theroux  (Charles Johnson, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of  LURE AND LOATHING Essays on Race, Identity, and the Ambivalence of Assimilation. Edited by Gerald Early   (Charles Johnson, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of   MEMORIES OF THE FORD ADMINISTRATION By John Updike  (Charles Johnson, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of   IN MY FATHER'S HOUSE Africa in the Philosophy of Culture. By Kwame Anthony Appiah  (Charles Johnson, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of   SIGNALS OF DISTRESS By Jim Crace  (Charles Johnson, NY Times Book Review)
    -Charles Johnson Award for Poetry and Fiction (SOUTHERN ILLINOIS UNIVERSITY CARBONDALE)
    -Deep impact  Seattle novelist Charles Johnson, winner of a MacArthur "genius" grant, is a philosopher at heart (Ellen Emry Heltzel, The Oregonian)
    -BIO/BIBLIO:
    -ARTICLE: on 1990 National Book Award for Middle Passage: Ideology Said to Split Book-Award Jurors (Roger Cohen, NY Times)
    -INTERVIEW: The Human Dimension   An interview with writer-philosopher Charles Johnson (Charles Mudede, Real Change)
    -REVIEW: of  Ten Indians By Madison Smartt Bell  Karate Kids (Charles Johnson, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of THE BLUE DEVILS OF NADA A Contemporary American Approach to Aesthetic Statement. By Albert Murray (Charles Johnson, NY times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of   INDEPENDENCE DAY By Richard Ford  (Charles Johnson, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of HEROISM AND THE BLACK INTELLECTUAL Ralph Ellison, Politics, and Afro-American Intellectual Life. By Jerry Gafio Watts   (Charles Johnson, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of   MILLROY THE MAGICIAN By Paul Theroux  (Charles Johnson, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of  LURE AND LOATHING Essays on Race, Identity, and the Ambivalence of Assimilation. Edited by Gerald Early   (Charles Johnson, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of   MEMORIES OF THE FORD ADMINISTRATION By John Updike  (Charles Johnson, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of   IN MY FATHER'S HOUSE Africa in the Philosophy of Culture. By Kwame Anthony Appiah  (Charles Johnson, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of   SIGNALS OF DISTRESS By Jim Crace  (Charles Johnson, NY Times Book Review)
    -Charles Johnson Award for Poetry and Fiction (SOUTHERN ILLINOIS UNIVERSITY CARBONDALE)
    -Deep impact  Seattle novelist Charles Johnson, winner of a MacArthur "genius" grant, is a philosopher at heart (Ellen Emry Heltzel, The Oregonian)
    -Charles Johnson: Fictionalizing King (Seattle Times)
    -REVIEW: of Dreamer By Charles Johnson (Dennis McFarland, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: Dreamer (STEPHANIE ZACHAREK, Salon)
    -REVIEW: Writer boldly attempts to inhabit King's mind (Donn Fry, Seattle Times)
    -REVIEW: (Denver Post)
    -REVIEW: A fictionalized Dr. King confronts his dark double  (Farah Jasmine Griffin for The
Philadelphia Inquirer)
    -REVIEW: Dreamer: Martin Luther King's evil twin (Meg Laughlin, The Miami Herald)
    -REVIEW: Recalling King's dream in the days of doubt (Andy Solomon, Boston Globe)
    -REVIEW: Garry Wills: The Long Voyage Home, NY Review of Books
        Middle Passage by Charles Johnson
    -REVIEW: of MIDDLE PASSAGE By Charles Johnson (Thomas Keneally, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Middle Passage Charles Johnson's Tale Of Slaving, Seafaring And Philosophizing (ELEANOR BLAU, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: Edmund S. Morgan: The Big American Crime, NY Review of Books
        Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America by Ira Berlin
        Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake and Lowcountry
        Remembering Slavery: African Americans Talk About Their Personal Experiences of Slavery
        Africans in America: America's Journey through Slavery produced by WGBH
        Africans in America: America's Journey through Slavery by Charles Johnson, Patricia Smith
    -The docu-novel: The author of "Bellefleur" selects five great "nonfiction novels." (Joyce Carol Oates, Salon)
    -ESSAY: OMNIVIEWS: BIFURCATIONS & THE AGE OF NICHE (Jeff Bockman, Publisher and Editor, Literal Latté)

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