A middle-aged failure struggles with his identity and masculinity when he’s forced to return home to Philly.
Johnson (Pym, 2011, etc.) digs autobiographically deep for this tragicomic novel about grudgingly returning to one’s roots. Our narrator is Warren Duffy, whose complex back story lends credence to his character. He’s a failed comic-book artist suffering from the triple whammy of a fresh divorce from his Welsh wife, losing his comic-book store in Cardiff, and his father’s death. Returning to his family’s palatial home in urban Philadelphia, Warren finds his old neighborhood has long gone to seed. He’s very conflicted as the light-skinned son of a black mother and an Irish father who long ago fled his racially charged hometown. Fate can’t resist kicking home once again when Warren discovers that he has a daughter, Tal, from an empty high school liaison with a local Jewish girl who's long since dead. The reluctant father warily takes in his daughter and stumbles across a local school called The Mélange Center, which devotes itself exclusively to supporting multiracial students. There, he discovers that others see him as a “sunflower”: “yellow on the outside, brown on the inside. A slang term for a biracial person who denies their mixed nature, only recognizing their black identity.” As a narrator, Warren is complicated and articulate, but readers may struggle to identify with his multifarious quarrels with the neighborhood locals, his aggressive yearning for one of Tal’s teachers, and the perpetual tightrope he believes he walks between the black and white worlds. The author is clearly interested in what it means to be biracial in America and whether it's better to identify publicly as white, black, or biracial. But he does the heavy lifting on the writing side, too, consummating his story with an absurd but comic conflagration on the occasion of “Loving Day,” a real but little-known celebration of the day the Supreme Court struck down all laws criminalizing interracial marriage.
Johnson is asking hard questions about race in America but he’s using an awfully tame approach to work out the answers, at least this go-round.