Ex­am­in­ing race with can­dor and hu­mor

Los Angeles Times - - BOOK REVIEW - By Jim Ru­land

Lov­ing Day

A Novel

Mat John­son

Spiegel& Grau: 304 pp., $26

To say that “Lov­ing Day” is a book about race is like say­ing “Moby-Dick” is a book about whales. In­deed, the sub­ti­tle to Mat John­son’s ex­cep­tional novel could read “the white­ness of the mixed male.”

That would be War­ren Duffy, a not-quite-ready-for-mid­dle-age comic book artist of Irish and African Amer­i­can de­scent. He can pass for white but iden­ti­fies as black, which is never not an is­sue. “I am a racial op­ti­cal il­lu­sion,” he de­clares early in the novel.

The prob­lems start at a comic book con­ven­tion where War­ren is placed in the “ghetto” along­side other African Amer­i­can artists. “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 seeme as black can­not imag­ine how a sane, in­tel­li­gent per­son couldbe so blind not tounder­stand this, de­spite my pale-skinned pres­ence.”

John­son’s riff on racial iden­tity starts as a scene, turns into an episode and morphs into a mo­tif that never lets up. His un­re­lent­ing ex­am­i­na­tion of black­ness, white­ness and ev­ery­thing in be­tween is han­dled with ruth­less can­dor and ri­otous hu­mor.

Newly di­vorced from his wife in Wales and re­cently or­phaned by the pass­ing of his fa­ther, War­ren is rud­der­less and reel­ing. He re­turns to Philadel­phia to set­tle his fa­ther’s af­fairs, which in­clude a fall­ing-down mansion in crime-rid­den Ger­man­town that may or may not be haunted.

War­ren’s early at­tempt to make peace with his past is tor­pe­doed by the dis­cov­ery that he has a teenage daugh­ter namedTal, who does not take the news that she is at least 25% African Amer­i­can­well.

“My­daugh­ter is a racist, I think. I ad­just that to, My daugh­ter is mildly racist. My daugh­ter is ca­su­ally racist, I set­tle on.” War­ren’s mag­na­nim­ity is aprod­uct of his de­sire to pro­tect Tal. How­ever, he treats his obli­ga­tion to his daugh­ter like a re­lay race: He may have come in at the last leg, but he be­lieves that all he has to do is get her out of high school and off to col­lege — as if parental re­spon­si­bil­ity has a fin­ish line.

That de­sire is frus­trated by Tal’s in­sis­tence on en­rolling, forher fi­nal se­mes­ter, in the Mélange Cen­ter, a be­lea­guered school for mixed kids with an un­ortho­dox ap­proach to ed­u­ca­tion where “Ev­ery­one is ea­ger to share their thoughts on how oth­ers should cat­e­go­rize them­selves.”

War­ren takes a dis­mal view of the en­ter­prise. “Those mu­lat­toes who look clearly black and hang black and are in the full em­brace of black cul­ture — nope, they’re not here, nowhere to be found. If they were they would de­nounce this lot of sell­outs, I knowthey­would. I can hearthem­fromthe place they­have in my con­scious­ness.”

Although the ques­tion of War­ren’s iden­tity haunts him through­out the book, his fore­bears aren’t the only ghosts. Tal in­sists that the house of her fa­ther’s fa­ther is haunted. War­ren, how­ever, has a mor­era­tional ex­pla­na­tion: They’re crack­heads. “Sure, they were ghosts. Ghosts of who they once were. You could say that about half of Philadel­phia.”

Even when the fam­ily strife and racial pol­i­tics are at peak in­ten­sity, John­son’s comic tim­ing is im­pec­ca­ble. Ev­ery page is packed with po­lit­i­cally in­cor­rect quips that would cause out­rage on Twit­ter but here speak the truth of a man work­ing through sev­eral life­times of is­sues: “… when old white folks start wav­ing the Con­sti­tu­tion like land­lords with a lease, it’s trou­ble.”

War­ren’s is­sues go at least as far backas Virginia in1958, whenRichard Lov­ing, a white man, and his African Amer­i­can girl­friend, Mil­dred Jeter, wanted to get mar­ried. The cou­ple moved toWash­ing­ton, D.C., and even­tu­ally sued the state of Virginia, which paved the way for de­crim­i­nal­iz­ing in­ter­ra­cial mar­riage in­Amer­ica. This event is cel­e­brated at the Mélange Cen­ter as “Lov­ing Day,” the buildup to which serves as the novel’s po­lit­i­cally charged cli­max: “‘We’ve got black boys be­ing used for tar­get prac­tice by white cops out there, we’ve got a prison sys­tem over flow­ing with vic­tims of white judg­ment,’ War­ren’s ex-girl­friend cries. ‘We have a cri­sis. Right now. Not in the eigh­teenth cen­tury, not in the civil rights era, but right now.’ ”

While it’s tempt­ing to call John­son’s novel timely or even pre­scient, he clearly longs for a time when it can be called his­tor­i­cal. Sadly, we’re not even close. Un­til weare­able to­havethekindof frank and open con­ver­sa­tions about race that are com­mon­place in “Lov­ing Day” but rare in the real world, the mytho­fa­post-racial so­ci­ety will re­main a comic book fan­tasy.

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