John Woman

Wal­ter Mosley

Foreword Reviews - - Reviews Adult Fiction -

At­lantic Monthly Press (SEPTEM­BER) Hard­cover $26 (320pp), 978-0-8021-2841-6

Wal­ter Mosley’s un­con­ven­tional novel John Woman fol­lows a rene­gade history pro­fes­sor with a dark se­cret.

Cor­nelius Jones is the bira­cial son of a bril­liant black man from Mis­sis­sippi and an Ital­ianamer­i­can woman. When his fa­ther gets sick, Cor­nelius takes over his job as pro­jec­tion­ist at a silent-film theater in Man­hat­tan’s East Vil­lage. Af­ter be­ing in­ter­rupted in the midst of a pruri­ent act by the theater’s owner, Cor­nelius takes a lug-wrench and strikes three de­ci­sive blows to the man’s head. Hid­ing the body in a se­cret closet in the theater, Cor­nelius later strikes up a sex­ual re­la­tion­ship with the lead investigator in the miss­ing-per­sons case. He evades dis­cov­ery.

When his fa­ther dies, Cor­nelius takes his in­her­i­tance and moves to Ari­zona. There, he rein­vents him­self as John Woman, a pro­fes­sor of “de­con­struc­tion­ist history,” win­ning over his stu­dents while alien­at­ing his col­leagues. But John’s mur­der­ous act soon comes back to haunt him; he’s even­tu­ally forced to reckon with his vi­o­lent past.

Mosley is the au­thor of more than fifty books; his prose is as­sured. There’s a stark­ness to the writ­ing that’s hard to get used to at first, but once en­veloped in Jones’s world, sen­tences flow more smoothly. An ir­ri­tat­ing trend of in­tro­duc­ing each new char­ac­ter by what they’re wear­ing slows the story, though.

John Woman ex­cels as a novel of ideas. Pro­fes­sor Woman en­gages with some truly un­ortho­dox ways of think­ing about history, and it’s clear that the book’s pri­mary in­ter­est is shar­ing these ideas with the world. The text’s ver­ba­tim lec­tures can be te­dious, but they also of­ten pique in­ter­est. The lat­ter half of the book con­tains enough mys­tery and thriller el­e­ments to re­main en­gag­ing.

Wal­ter Mosley’s lat­est book is lit­er­ary fic­tion of a dif­fer­ent kind—partly a thriller about a man with a check­ered past, and partly an al­le­gor­i­cal tale about the role that history plays in our lives. MATT GRANT

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