Walter Mosley is a writer not afraid to push his craft in new
directions. In KILLING JOHNNY FRY, he writes a first person novel
containing some of the most explicit sex scenes written by an
established American author since Henry Miller and Philip
Trying something new is not unusual for Mosley. He burst onto the
literary scene in the early 1990s with the brilliant mystery series
featuring a black Los Angeles private detective named Easy Rawlins.
Mosley could have spent the next 30 years comfortably writing
nothing but books about Rawlins.
But instead he did what great writers do. He has written literary
novels, science fiction books and even nonfiction works about
politics. He went, in other words, where his muse and considerable
talent would take him without ever abandoning Rawlins. KILLING
JOHNNY FRY is a harrowing, extremely well-written story that grabs
you from the first page and doesn't let go.
Of course, this being America, anything this sexually explicit is
bound to set off all sorts of alarms in some circles. Think of our
archaic movie rating system that allows a film with the most
gruesome, gratuitous violence to get an "R" rating while anything
that seriously and realistically depicts human sexuality has to
fear being labeled "pornographic." Yet another reason why people
laugh at us in Europe.
Well, anybody who dismisses KILLING JOHNNY FRY as pornography or
salacious misses not only the point of the book but deprives
themselves of the pleasure of reading one of America's greatest
writers. Yes, there is some frank, really frank, sex in this book,
but it is not an erotic novel by any means. Mosley coined the term
"sexistential noir" to describe this work. It is a good description
because the book is not about sex.
Consider the first sentence: "I decided to kill Johnny Fry on a
Wednesday, but it was a week before that I was given the reason."
That tells us right away that those expecting cheap thrills will be
disappointed; Mosley plunges us right into the midnight world of
Cordell Carmel is a successful 45-year-old freelance translator
living in New York City. He had one failed marriage but has been in
a monogamous relationship with his girlfriend for several years.
They live apart, but he spends weekends at her apartment. They are
like any other successful, comfortable couple you are likely to see
having brunch together on a Sunday on the upper west side of
Manhattan while reading The New York Times. Life is good,
if a little ordinary.
Then one day he encounters a problem familiar at one point or
another to all New Yorkers: being far from home and in need of a
bathroom in a city that strangely seems to pride itself on not
having public toilets. So he drops by his girlfriend's apartment on
a weekday when he knows she will not be there in order to use the
facilities. And you can guess the rest: he finds her involved in
rather vigorous relations with one Johnny Fry, a fellow they met
through his agent.
The man cuckolded: a story not quite as old as Adam and Eve but
right up there. Then the novel takes a startling turn. Rather than
burst in on the lovers and express his rage, Cordell, called L,
silently leaves the scene without being noticed. On the way home,
he stops and buys a porno tape. Over the next week, he will propel
himself into his own New York sex odyssey somewhat reminiscent of
the tamer one Tom Cruise's character took in Stanley Kubrick's
Eyes Wide Shut.
Soon this becomes a lot more serious than a revenge fling, and the
story turns very dark. Interestingly enough, L learns he is
something of a sexual Olympian; he's capable of incredible feats,
as he explores regions of his sexuality he never knew existed, with
multiple willing and extremely uninhibited women. But there is no
joy in his couplings, which is why this is not an erotic book.
There is no love here; the sex is not romantic, but dead and
mechanical, angry and animalistic. L is a man adrift, preoccupied
with death and destruction.
"I was angry at Jo and Johnny," L says at one point, "but the real
source of pain for me was that I had never known how empty and
unfulfilled my life was." Later, he tells us, "My emotions were
like lava flowing under a fallow landscape. I was filled with rage
and impotence too."
This book is a relentless portrait of a man's psychological
disintegration. He loses his job, lies to his girlfriend and gets
involved with drugs, a porno star and the police. He crosses over
to his dark side and stays there. He discovers that he is capable
not only of having a lot of mind-bending sex, but is filled with
feelings of bloodlust, cruelty and perhaps the ability to kill. He
steals a gun. At one point in the narrative, he starts experiencing
all the physical symptoms of a stroke. But rather than racing to
the emergency room, he finds relief through yet another tryst. "If
the dream is strong enough, it comes true," he says, then ominously
adds that "the same was true for nightmares."
Indeed. What Mosley ultimately is writing about here is fate ---
that thin line that separates the ordinary life we know from
something terrifying over which we have no control. If we only had
left for work at our normal time, would we have been driving
through that intersection at the very moment the drunk driver hit
the gas? L opens the wrong door at the wrong time and the world he
has known is suddenly shattered into a million pieces. L tries to
reassure us, or himself, at the end of this narrative that "there's
always time for redemption." But one wonders. Some doors once
opened can never be slammed shut.
Walter Mosley has written a great novel here. As with all of his
books, it is beautifully written. But rather than simply titillate
us, Mosley makes us face the existential condition of human life
and the dark side that lurks not far from our everyday world.
KILLING JOHNNY FRY ultimately does what great fiction should do. It
makes us think.
Reviewed by Tom Callahan on January 22, 2011
Killing Johnny Fry: A Sexistential Novel