At twelve years old, Cornelius, the son of an Italian-American woman and an older black man from Mississippi named Herman, secretly takes over his father's job at a silent film theater in New York's East Village. Five years later, as Herman lives out his last days, he shares his wisdom with his son, explaining that the person who controls the narrative of history controls their own fate. After his father dies and his mother disappears, Cornelius sets about reinventing himself--as Professor John Woman, a man who will spread Herman's teachings into the classrooms of his unorthodox southwestern university and beyond. But there are other individuals who are attempting to influence the narrative of John Woman, and who might know something about the facts of his hidden past.
Engaging with some of the most provocative ideas of recent intellectual history, John Woman is a compulsively readable, deliciously unexpected novel about the way we tell stories, and whether the stories we tell have the power to change the world.
You are your history
To start a Walter Mosley novel is like sitting down to a feast. In this case, the tastiest dish is not the protagonist who gives the book its name, but his mother. Lucia Napoli-Jones is such a vivid, vibrant presence in John Woman that when she leaves early in the book, the reader may spend the rest of it, like her son, longing for her return. Earthy, deeply imperfect, possessed of a rollicking Lower East Side way of speaking and living, she is easily Mosley’s best secondary character since Mouse Alexander.
But enough about flamboyant Lucia. John Woman is all about history: its slipperiness, its unknowability and maybe even its ultimate uselessness. John Woman’s autodidactic father teaches him about this, which John in turn teaches to his students after he becomes a college professor.
This is all ironic, for John is trying to outrun his history. First, there’s the uneasy relationship between his parents, both of whom he loves with the helpless passion of a young child even into his 30s. John’s real childhood ended abruptly when he was forced to kill someone in defense of himself and his father. Soon after, he’s raped. He then flees, changing identities until he settles on his unusual moniker, which is in part a reference to his rapist.
As usual, Mosley’s superpower lies in his slantwise take on the world and his characters, of whom there are dozens, and every one is memorable, even if they speak only a line or two. They include John’s bright but fractious students, the weird faculty members of the university where John teaches, a slew of detectives and lawyers and a hooker with a heart of gold. (The trauma of John’s defloration challenges his ability to engage in conventional relationships and kinkless sex.)
All the while, the reader, like John, looks for signs of Lucia. Will we ever see her again? This reviewer won’t tell. I will tell you that this fantastic, surprising, humane and somewhat perverse book is one of Mosley’s best.