A novel about Martin Luther King Jr. from the National Book Award-winning Johnson (Middle Passage, 1990, etc.), who...



A novel about Martin Luther King Jr. from the National Book Award-winning Johnson (Middle Passage, 1990, etc.), who continues with his strange combination of high-flown philosophy and down-home folksiness. Ontological antinomianism is Johnson's subject here, and he uses just that kind of heavy-duty words to impress--even bludgeon--readers, who may or may not be willing to follow along in what starts out as a fairly ingenious story. The novel pairs Martin Luther King Jr. with one Chaym Smith--a double for the civil rights leader who offers himself to King as a stand-in or decoy. The odd name is, as the narrator tells us, an etymological variant of ""Cain."" It's ominous, and the omens are all the darker when two sinister FBI agents show up to co-opt the civil rights leader's evil twin and . . . and what? Johnson adduces much paranoid speculation, but there is no clear resolution or anything new about King's assassination, or, indeed, about King himself. We're simply left to imagine whatever skullduggery the FBI could have been up to. Chaym just disappears, and along with him goes any semblance of purpose to all the foregoing exposition. All Chaym says explicitly before he vanishes is that they (the FBI) are blackmailing him and want ""to embarrass"" King in Memphis. He wasn't embarrassed; he was shot. But even if the G-men were somehow behind this, their role is never made clear, and Johnson doesn't offer the vaguest suggestion about the possible use to which the Feds could have put their coerced doppelganger. Almost as serious a defect in the book, however, is that King's character is never fully developed. We see him as suffering and conventionally saintly, hardly given any real character at all except that he smokes cigarettes and prefers catfish, pigs' feet, and collard greens to lobster. Johnson's in-your-face style seems all the more annoying for having led nowhere, and for having failed to produce any coherent vision of one of the great storylines in the epic of American history.

Pub Date: April 4, 1998

ISBN: 0684854430

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 1998

Close Quickview