Friday, February 10, 2006
There are problems with this short novel about MLK. Not every low-level civil rights volunteer working around King was a hyperintellectual with wide knowledge of Biblical hermeneutics, Eastern theology, economic theory, Husserl, Nietzsche, and the most esoteric details of Western art. Charles Johnson--one of the most intimidating intellects I've encountered, though engagingly humble as well--can't write dumb or uneducated folks; he can't, in fact, write regular folks. Everyone with a speaking part is a polymath genius. The narrator Matthew--a young poor Black kid in the '60s who volunteers to work for King--knows everything Charles Johnson knows. Not impossible, I suppose, but highly unlikely for a young kid with no money and limited educational opportunities. Matthew knows things, in fact, that he could not possibly know--such as detailed information about Hoover and Kennedy and Roy Wilkins and LBJ and their various machinations against King--this stuff didn't (at least to my knowledge) become public until the Church hearings in the '70s.
But forget those problems, because they're not actually faults--Charles Johnson knows exactly what the fuck he's doing. He put a reference to Piltdown Man in Middle Passage, after all--and how an early-nineteenth century sailor could read into the future like that was mysterious to me until Johnson explained the thematic reasoning behind it to our grad class at Temple University. (Middle Passage, by the way, is an excellent fucking novel. You need to read it tomoorow.)
Dreamer is marvelous work--seamless, elegant, and challenging without being difficult. To capture King, his motivations, his mission, and his legacy, Johnson busts out the old trope of the doppleganger: a dude who looks exactly like MLK, whose intellect is as keen, but whose motives are less clear. Chaym Smith has had trouble because King is stirring shit up--blacks and whites are sick of King and his rabble-rousing in rioting Chicage, and Smith is bearing the brunt because he's often mistaken for the minister. Chaym has a past that includes war wounds, whores, drugs, zazen temples, Indian scriptures, a failed career as preacher, arson, and perhaps several homicides. When he meets King and offers his services as a security double, the novel takes off in two directions, with dichotomies springing all over the place (Cain and Abel, Jesus the lamb and Christ the Avenger, etc). It is in these elegant oppostions and comparisons that we can come to understand--and perhaps briefly to inhabit--a figure so immense and complex as King.
I loved it, and not only for its implication that there are many potential MLKs who never have an opportunity to take on a similar mission, but also for its powerful evocation of the hardships King dealt with daily for more than a decade. Powerful and vividly realized.