A struggling professor of African-American lit falls through the rabbit hole of Edgar Allan Poe’s strangest tale.
Multimedia writer and novelist Johnson (Hunting in Harlem, 2003, etc.) seems to have a fabulous time tinkering with wordplay and social conventions in his wildly inventive take on the roots of fantastic literature. The novel opens with an apologetic preface straight out of an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel, begging pardon for the flights of fancy that follow. Johnson then launches into the loquacious world of Chris Jaynes, a professor at a liberal Manhattan college whose interest in teaching Poe over Ralph Ellison gets him fired. His interest in Poe’s adventure is flagged when his “book pimp” scores him a true rarity, a frayed copy of The True and Interesting Narrative of Dirk Peters. Coloured Man. As Written by Himself. The book is an alternative version of Poe’s only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, a disjointed 1838 adventure novel that has long been the target of accusations of racism. Soon the odd professor has established the account’s authenticity and even secured poor Dirk’s skull from a distant descendent. This would be wild enough territory to explore, but Johnson soon ratchets things up. To further his knowledge, Jaynes launches an expedition to the Antarctic in the company of a deranged sea captain, a pal from the streets, and his old girlfriend. Traveling through a portal, the expedition finds a lost world where a desiccated, drunken Arthur Pym lives, protected by strange beasts (“Snow honkies,” Jaynes dubs them). It all leads to some very funny moments of enlightenment for the conflicted professor. “Turns out though that my thorough and exhaustive scholarship into the slave narratives of the African Diaspora in no way prepared me to actually become a fucking slave,” he says.
An acutely humorous, very original story that will delight lovers of literature and fantasy alike.