When I worked at a bookstore, I became adept at summarizing books for readers in as few words as possible. The Great Gatsby? Rich guy tries to win girl’s heart. The Crying of Lot 49? Girl checks the mail, discovers a worldwide conspiracy. It’s likely that I would have met my match, however, had I been working as a bookseller when Mat Johnson’s Pym came out in 2011. It’s several books rolled into one, really: a literary detective story about Edgar Allan Poe’s sole novel; an action-adventure movie featuring ice-dwelling albino creatures in Antarctica; a racial satire about the vain pursuit of pure whiteness; and likely a few other obscure subgenres as well.
Loving Day, Johnson’s new novel, lacks the fantastical backdrop of Pym. The whole novel takes place in Germantown, an African-American neighborhood in Philadelphia. There are no CGI monsters to speak of. (There may or may not be a ghost, however.) But it is arguably a more daring novel, and what makes it so daring is the fact that it’s so personal. Johnson has crammed as much of himself into this book as can fit. This is very affecting, as Johnson’s is a self that has immense difficulty fitting in anywhere.
Like many a Victorian Gothic, Loving Day begins with a man returning to his ancestral estate, finding it empty and in disrepair. But Warren Duffy is no member of the landed gentry. The son of a black woman and a white man (Irish, specifically, that pasty shade of white), Warren was raised in Germantown by his mother while looking passably Caucasian. After she died, and after his father took a hands-off approach to parenting for the remainder of his adolescence, Warren went to art school in Wales, “where dear Lord I have never felt blacker.” He married a Welsh woman who expected him to become a successful comic book artist and/or a successful father. He failed on both counts. Divorced, broke, Warren returns to Loudin Mansion, the seven-acre estate in the midst of Germantown that was already falling apart when his father bought it in the ’70s. Following his father’s death, Warren inherited it. He has dreams of his own regarding the house, ambitious though not especially noble: he wants to burn it down, claim the insurance money, then run off without even looking in the rearview mirror.
Warren’s plans are soon derailed, however. When he was a teenager, he had a brief romance with a Jewish girl who lived in one of Philly’s tonier neighborhoods. Unbeknownst to him, the affair produced a child, a girl named Tal. Once Warren is back in town, Tal’s grandfather tracks him down, explaining that her mother died a few years back, and what she needs now is guidance from the father she never knew. The arson scheme goes on the back burner, so to speak, while Warren tries to find a school where Tal can finish up her senior year and thus evade delinquency.
Middle-aged male, persevering through failure with the aid of alcohol and a sense of humor: it’s a setup that wouldn’t be out of place in, say, a Richard Ford novel. But where the loneliness of Ford’s men is existential in nature, Warren’s is also social, even genetic. He’s a black man who looks white, out of place wherever he goes.
I am a racial optical illusion. I am as visually duplicitous as the illustration of the young beauty that’s also the illustration of the old hag. Whoever sees the beauty will always see the beauty, even if the image of the hag can be pointed out to exist in the same etching. Whoever sees the hag will be equally resolute. The people who see me as white always will, and will think it’s madness that anyone else could come to any other conclusion, holding to this falsehood regardless of learning my true identity. The people who see me as black cannot imagine how a sane, intelligent person could be so blind not to understand this, despite my pale-skinned presence. The only influence I have over this perception, if any, is in the initial encounter. Here is my chance to be categorized as black, with an asterisk. The asterisk is my whole body.
It’s not saying too much, I don’t think, to detect aspects of the author within his character. Johnson is also the son of a white father and a black mother, his racial identity seemingly contingent upon the whims of whatever community he finds himself in. He’s written about it before, in Pym as well as Incognegro, a graphic novel that follows a black journalist “passing” for white in the Jim Crow south to report on lynching. But Loving Day is by far his most personal take on the matter, a statement of intent as much as a work of fiction.
That is not to say that it’s some humorless screed. Anyone who follows Johnson on Twitter knows that he is incapable of being unfunny. Loving Day is a thoroughly comic novel, though the humor isn’t sugar meant to help the medicine of racial insight go down more easily. No, the humor is the medicine. There’s the seemingly white kid with dreadlocks who calls himself One Drop, appropriating the name of the miscegenation law that was on the books for much of U.S. history. There’s the mixed-race school that Tals ends up attending, the students of which are “the human equivalent of mismatched socks.” There’s even the simple matter of terminology, as when one of Tal’s teachers declares Warren to be a “sunflower.” What’s 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.” If that doesn’t make you squirm, there are dozens more jokes like that, and one of them is bound to make you uncomfortable.
Is that what Johnson is up to, making us laugh at our discomfort at discussing race in any terms other than platitudes? As far as projects go, it’s not without merit, but there’s something deeper going on here. Indeed, part of Johnson’s aim is to reclaim the term from its pejorative associations. There’s value in this, certainly, but it’s worth pointing out how framing the “mulatto experience” as comic runs deeply against the grain of American literature.
For better or worse, the work of William Faulkner remains one a touchstone when it comes to literary depictions of race. Toni Morrison counts him as an early influence; she even wrote her master’s thesis on his work. Mixed-race characters appeared often in his fiction, nearly always with a sense of doom about them. Think of Joe Christmas in Light in August, who looks white but has the “one drop” of black in him. After having an affair with a white woman, he’s accused of rape, hunted down, and killed. This trope occurs often enough that there’s even a name for it: the Tragic Mulatto. Outcast in both directions, fated to never belong.
Loving Day is an entry in a small but vital subgenre: the Comic Mulatto Novel. (Fran Ross’s Oreo, soon to be reissued by New Directions, is another.) It looks to upend not just a vocabulary word, but an entire concept, one that’s been around since the Constitution was drafted. Rather than having a mixed-race character act as a metaphor, shouldering the burden of meaning, Loving Day places him in front and center, telling his own story and making his own meanings. That it does so with such nimbleness, tossing off one-liners with every turn of the page, is a testament to Johnson’s strengths.
And to the strengths of the form. Is there a better opportunity for the biting power of humor than the mixed-race experience? Partaking of two different cultures with different histories, halves that each take themselves to be a whole, seems like a secret weapon when it comes to making readers of various backgrounds laugh with first discomfort, then recognition, and finally understanding. Here’s hoping that more books will come along to explore this particular facet of the human comedy.