John Woman Fascinates, Even When It Falters

John Woman (2018)
By Walter Mosley
Atlantic Monthly Press, 320 pages.

“The hierarchy of history rarely documents its greatest heroes—they’re too busy doing to waste time on legacy.” You probably don’t expect to pick up a Walter Mosley novel and read such a line. After all, he’s best known for his sharp-tongued, hard-boiled detective novels that draw comparisons to Raymond Chandler. Mosley has long been known for his jump-off-the-page lines and his African-American protagonists, but John Woman is another thing altogether: a book that’s both a mystery and philosophy of history.

The story catches fire in 1995, when protagonist Cornelius (“CC”) Jones is 16-years-old and is caring for his father, Herman, the projectionist at a silent movie house in Brooklyn operated by the tyrannical Chapman Lorraine. The latter is trying to squeeze every last dime from the old Arbuckle Theater—a task that means neglecting the building, Herman, and ticket-taker France Bickman—but mainly he’s just for the right moment to fire his employees and shutter the old barn. Herman is prematurely worn out physically and emotionally. He managed to escape Mississippi during the days of Jim Crow and make his way to New York, where he met Lucia Napoli, and Italian-American firecracker. They produced CC, but Lucia was simply too free-spirited to contain, and bolted when CC was just a child.

To say that Herman is an unconventional single father hardly scratches the surface. He is also an autodidact who overcame childhood illiteracy and schooled himself in history and philosophy. Forget Dr. Seuss and childhood primers; CC’s childhood bedtime stories came from such unlikely writers as Thucydides, Herodotus, Plato, and the Durants. Before he was 12, CC was expected to have views on Marx and Aristotle. Of course, at some point, a lad also comes of age. Circumstance forces CC to accelerate his maturation. He’s secretly covering for father at the Arbuckle, and is clandestinely initiated into life’s carnal pleasures by policewoman Colette Margolis, who is investigating Lorraine’s disappearance.

Be prepared for numerous inappropriate relationships; John Woman is not a novel that deals with the lives and values of the material- and status-conscious middle class. Quite the opposite; it moves from society’s bottom rung to the top half of the ladder. When Herman passes away—mourned only by his son, France, and his unpaid Irish housekeeper—CC finds that he has come into a legacy of the financial kind. John Woman is partly about reinvention, and we leap ahead to the year 2013. CC disappeared several identities ago. After obtaining degrees from Harvard under one name and some creative paperwork under another, he is now John Woman—there is a reason for the surname—an assistant professor of history at the New University of the Southwest in Arizona.

If you’re thinking, ho hum, another novel about a kid saved through education but worried about being exposed as a fraud, you couldn’t be more wrong. John/CC teaches a course titled Introduction to Deconstructionist Historical Devices and is widely acknowledged to be a genius and an iconoclast. Woman’s students love him—once they get him—but most of his colleagues loathe him. His approach to history is revolutionary; Woman insists that, “history is what is left over after all living memory has been erased.” Readers recognize this as confessional on one level, but Woman also asserts that history’s primary meaning lies with its future uses because all history is, at best, fanciful speculation based upon incomplete evidence. Even if you’re not a historian, you will find yourself drawn into John Woman’s methods and deductions. Call it an unconventional kind of detective work.

If you are a professional historian such as I, you will either read these passages and scores of other musings as affirmation of the dynamic nature of inquiry, or you’ll be outraged by how cavalierly John Woman dismisses traditional evidence. This tension is Mosley’s point. Woman’s colleagues think he’s a fraud; or is it that they are intimidated that he might expose them as being such? It doesn’t help that he’s not an outwardly warm person and, as we learn, not one who follows rules—more inappropriate relationships. Worst of all in the eyes of some, the college administration and a rich board member named Willie Pepperdine seem to love John Woman.

Here’s where the novel takes a twist that I found problematic. Without revealing too much, it seems that the school’s founders and leaders are more than one sees on the surface. There is a shadowy Illuminati-like organization called the Platinum Path of “strong-minded intellectuals” bent on saving humankind from itself. John Woman finds himself in its orbit, but does he wish to land? Can he escape the fact that he’s not yet history, as not all “living memory has been erased.” See John run, but can he hide?

I adored the first three quarters of this novel. I’m conflicted when Moseley goes Dan Brown on us. John Woman is so smart and provocative that I feel compelled to pull my critical punches, but it sure feels as if Mosley wrote himself into an existential corner from which only a dodgy contrivance could extricate him. I was fascinated by Herman, who was indeed a hero too busy doing to be concerned with legacy. John/CC is equally intriguing as a deconstructionist of both himself and the discipline of history. I would even consider using parts of Mosley’s book in a history class; it’s that thought-provoking. In the end, I was drawn to the remark that truth is found in “actions not your convictions.” I found considerably more veracity in Mosley’s characters than in a Platinum Path that seemed more a rusted tin cliché.

Rob Weir


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