Review of Walter Mosley’s Killing Johnny Fry

Killing Johnny Fry

An origins story:

As a college student I majored in Comparative Literature. It wasn’t until the very last year of my four-year tenure that I came to know that black women writers existed around the world when a black woman scholar of Comparative Literature whose regular gig was at an HBCU taught a class in it as a visiting professor. 

As soon as I could I signed up for her class entitled “Third World Women’s Literature.” For the next several years that wonderful woman taught me numerous lessons beyond how to critically read black women’s literature: that there was such a thing as a doctorate, that black women had them, that black women write brilliant fiction and have been for a very long time, that I had options. 

That professor, whom I’ve mentioned several times in this blog, was a big fan of Walter Mosley. Largely out of respect for my mentor’s choices in literature, I began reading Mosley’s works. While most know the author for his Easy Rawlings series, I have actually eschewed those and instead, have devoured Blue Light (1998), one of his sci fi novels which I love, Debbie Doesn’t Do It Anymore (2014), On the Head of a Pin and The Gift of Fire (2012), from the time when he was doing that wonderful thing where he had two books in one, oriented in opposing directions, and which, include, I believe, his own drawings. I’ve owned his first young adult novel, 47 (2005), for a number of years and plan to read it soon. One of my all-time favorite articles is one Mosley wrote about the appropriateness of black people writing science fiction entitled “Black to the Future.” (You can find the essay in Sheree R. Thomas’ edited collection, Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora (2000).To help me understand how we got where we are politically, I’m reading his Twelve Steps Toward Political Revelation (2011). 

Walter Mosley

As you may be able to tell, I’ve become a kind of reluctant Mosley fan. 

So when I got an email from Black Classic Press about a month ago that the founder of the press, W. Paul Coates, would, as a way of promoting Mosley’s latest short story collection, The Awkward Black Man (2020), be interviewing the author and invited anyone interested to listen in and ask questions, I immediately signed up. 

And a good time was had by all. 

Mosley is as brilliant, talented, funny, provocative and “a credit to the race” as ever. 

One of the texts that came up again and again in the zoom chat was Killing Johnny Fry: A Sexistential Novel (2005). Mosley addressed the readers’ obsession with the book, which of course, made me want to read it post-haste!! So even while the interview was in session I ordered the book for my kindle as well as his latest offering, The Awkward Black Man

Almost as soon as the interview was over I settled down to read Killing Johnny Fry and pretty much obsessed over it until I was done a few days later. It’s a great novel. 

But what struck me more than the plot or the artistry of the writing was the subject matter. The novel is described thusly on Goodreads: “When Cordell Carmel catches his longtime girlfriend with another man, the act that he witnesses seems to dissolve all the boundaries he knows. He wants revenge, but also something more. Killing Johnny Fry is the story of Cordell’s dark, funny, soulful, and outrageously explicit sexual odyssey in search of a new way of life.”

I’m not quite sure what’s “soulful” about the novel and the protagonist doesn’t just catch his “longtime girlfriend with another man.” Cordell is a black man and his lover is a black woman. The man he sees her with is white. The act that Cordell sees them engaging in would be, I suspect for some, considered degrading. And she calls him “daddy” while they’re doing it! There are many layers of problematic meaning embedded in this fact alone. Add to that the fact that his girlfriend, Joelle, calls Cordell “L,” which for me, immediately summons the symbol that people make on their foreheads with their index finger and thumb when they don’t want to come right out and call someone a loser, or as my students use it, as in “take an L,” a loss. Either way, not a good thing. 

The way that Cordell goes about searching for “a new way of life” is largely by engaging in sex that would easily be featured in porn videos. This is in between bouts of vertigo that frequently overtake him and which seem almost critical at certain points, but which also signify his dying to being one way in the world and born to another.  

Fine. 

But here’s where it gets interesting for me: I know of at least two other black male writers who have also directly broached the subject of black men having sex with white women. One is Cecil Brown whose The Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger (1969) I read in my early 20s and the Haitian-Canadian author, Dany Laferriere who wrote How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired (1987), turned into a film starring Isaach de Bankolé, and Why Must a Black Writer Write about Sex? (1994) which I read in my 30s.

(Interestingly, if you type in Brown’s other novel, All Night Visitors, along with his name on Amazon a selection of porn magazines pop up.) 

But something’s changed in me in the ensuing years. Where in my earlier years, I empathized with the protagonists: seemingly hapless black men who were fetishized and objectified by white women, this time with Mosley’s novel, it was the women I was most interested in: Cordell’s emotionally distant mother who is apparently the reason he is such milquetoast, Joelle, his cheating girlfriend with whom for several years he’d had sex that would put a Tasmanian devil to sleep, but whom we later learn was terribly abused as a child. There’s ambitious Lucy who seems the epitome of white bread that’s longing to be toasted. And then there’s Sasha, the most tragic of them all. The lone black woman, Monica, is a single mother who wants to send her baby girl to a Montessori school so that she can have a better chance at life. Like Brown’s protagonist George Washington’s, Pat, Monica is the only one for whom Cordell seems to have genuine unambiguous affection.  

There are several ways that Mosley’s Killing Johnny Fry intersects with Brown’s The Life and Loves and Laferriere’s How to Make Love. Maybe I’ll write an article about it one day. But for now, suffice it to say that I think that these authors, each very talented and perceptive, are working out some long-held ambiguities and stereotypes around black masculinity, capitalist consumption, white women’s predatory nature as agents and beneficiaries as well as victims of racist patriarchy, and a deep desire to honor and uplift black womanhood while recognizing how difficult that is sometimes.   

Killing Johnny Fry as well as the other novels mentioned in this post, are worth reading one, two, three times. 

I believe I speak for all the people who were present at that interview that I’m very grateful to Black Classic Press for featuring Mosley, even though the author’s latest collection is not even published with them!! For me, that’s an example of true collective upliftment. 

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