The prolific author's latest novel is a little bit crime story, and also a meditation on history, identity, power and sex. Mosley will discuss "John Woman" on Oct. 18 at the Northwest African American Museum.
A novel by Walter Mosley always prods a reader to think beyond the mundane, in part because Mosley’s mind darts all over. Mosley is widely known for the Easy Rawlins detective series (you may remember “Devil in a Blue Dress,” which was made into a movie starring Denzel Washington), but the prolific author also writes science fiction, historical fiction, essays and more. He’s a keen observer and a masterful, award-winning writer.
His latest novel, “John Woman,” is a little bit crime story and also a meditation on history, identity, power and sex. Sometimes it felt like three or four books vying for attention.
I welcomed the expositions on history, but they sometimes took me out of the narrative. The sexual relationships made me think, and also made me cringe. At this moment in which our nation is struggling with its sex-based demons, I wanted more help from Mosley to understand his intent. But then, it is a book that deals with uncertainty and complexity.
The main character is a young history professor who teaches his students that comprehending history is beyond human abilities. “We must, as scholars of an impossible study, realize that while history is definite, the human investigation of the past can only be art, the one truly deconstructionist art — because the only way to capture the essence of history is to make it up.”
Professor Woman got his interest in history from his father, who once told him, “Most human records are based on lies, misbegotten loyalties and misinterpretation.”
At one point the professor is called upon to present a paper to an academic committee. Instead he talks about history and his father, but he tells the committee he’s talking about a black man named HJ. “HJ’s people lived inside the dream of another race,” Woman says. He didn’t know his history, but he knew all of theirs.”
HJ read and read until he came to a larger understanding, that he needed to live outside the false history, which hurt not only him, but the people who constructed it: “By leaving his people’s history out of their records they had perverted the memory of their own past.”
The professor’s own complicated history drives the story forward into a collision with his present. John is not the professor’s original name, but part of a recreation intended to hide his past. His life is full of secrets, including a terrible crime he committed as a teenager.
His given name is Cornelius Jones and he is the son of two very different people who met in New York City. His father is a black man who started life in poverty in Mississippi but gave himself a classical education and adopted speech and behavior that are proper to a fault.
His mother is a beautiful Italian American who likes a good time. They stay together just long enough to conceive the boy, who loves them both but is raised primarily by his bookish father.
Young Cornelius enjoys his mother telling the story about how she met his father and how Cornelius was conceived. She always starts out telling him about her previous boyfriend, the wannabe gangster Jimmy Grimaldi, who would “curl my toes.” And she moves on to her seduction of Cornelius’ shy father the night they met.
Sex plays a significant role in the novel, and Cornelius/Woman is both a victim and a victimizer, though he doesn’t recognize that.
Mosley’s characters are always complicated; there is always good and bad in them. Professor Woman says life is complicated so we ought not judge other people. But that’s something he says while claiming to be innocent of a crime he’s charged with. We readers know he’s guilty, but we also know why he did it. Is it OK for a relatively good person to hurt a relatively bad person? Mosley takes old questions like that and makes them fresh again.
“John Woman” by Walter Mosley, Atlantic Monthly Press, 384 pp., $26
Walter Mosley will discuss “John Woman” from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 18, at the Northwest African American Museum, 2300 S. Massachusetts St., Seattle; www.naamnw.org