Killing Johnny Fry: A Sexistential Novel
by Walter Mosley
Published by Bloomsbury
280 pages, 2007
Walter's Big Adventure
Reviewed by Tracy Quan
When a national treasure like Walter Mosley decides to publish a dirty novel, snippy reactions are inevitable. Does a journey of sexual discovery have to be quite this filthy? But if Killing Johnny Fry were a novel one could read over lunch, it wouldn't be authentic porn. Fans of Mosley’s Easy Rawlins series might be put off by the surreal absurdity, but perhaps the author is reaching out to new readers. Or, like Bill Clinton, a fan of Mosley's early work, perhaps he's doing something audacious because he can.
Mosley's latest novel, about one man's response to his girlfriend's infidelity, reminds me of a bawdy calypso tune I heard as a teenager. "Wah She Go Do," a feisty Calypso Rose anthem recorded by Bonnie Raitt, echoed in my head as I got acquainted with Mosley's narrator, Cordell Carmel: "I can understand/Why a woman must have an outside man."
Cordell can't, but he wants to, and Killing Johnny Fry is the story of how he eventually does. It starts when he spies his longtime girlfriend, Joelle, having rough sex with Johnny on the living room floor. She doesn't know Cordell is watching, and he doesn't let on, but he feels emasculated. The trauma of betrayal transforms this middle-aged New Yorker into a depraved (though kindhearted) beast with a relentless erection. He begins having sex in new positions and unusual locations, with neighbors, colleagues, his unfaithful girlfriend and strangers. He’s not exactly liberated, but he’s going places -- to body parts that once were off-limits and to recently discovered parts of Brooklyn, exploring the usual taboos that are pornographic staples. Some of his escapades include wrestlers, designer drugs, and a sex clown.
You don't have to be an authority on raunch, kink or (s)existentialism to appreciate what's happening to Cordell. But it might help to be a Woody Allen fan, a lover of stories about New Yorkers, their manners and the ironies of infidelity.
Shortly before stumbling upon Joelle's affair, Cordell lied about having lunch with a girl half his age. Now he discovers that "classical mathematics don't work with affairs of the heart." Sleeping around on his own, Cordell realizes, can't "even out what Joelle had done with Johnny," and he'll "never forgive her based upon those equations." Cordell enjoys interrogating her, but pulls back when he sees that she's afraid to tell the truth, an empathic yet conniving move.
Johnny, meanwhile, becomes an outsider with inside knowledge more threatening to the status quo than their kinkiest sex acts, because it's so ordinary and domestic. He e-mails Joelle about loving "the way you fold the towels ... how you never allow anyone in a store to cheat you." Johnny knows her many sides: efficient housewife, unfaithful girlfriend, needy masochist. No wonder Cordell -- who loves Joelle but realizes that he doesn't really know her -- wants to kill Johnny.
There's a racial dimension, too: Cordell and his girlfriend are black; Johnny is white. Mosley describes the many skin tones, shapes and sounds that go with being part of non-white New York. A small-breasted teenager staring at Cordell's crotch in a museum is "white but not Caucasian;" the doorman who should have stopped him from walking in on Joelle is lighter than Cordell, with a "mild Asian cast" to his eyes, an accent "not of the United States" and a very un-American preference for soccer. These are among the telling details that make me glad a mature, well-rounded novelist is tackling porn. | February 2007
Tracy Quan is the author of the Nancy Chan novels: Diary of a Married Call Girl and Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl. Her writing has appeared in numerous venues including Cosmopolitan, Financial Times, Los Angeles Times, The Globe & Mail, Der Tagesspiegel and South China Morning Post. She lives in New York, where she is currently writing her next Nancy Chan adventure, Diary of a Transatlantic Call Girl. You can visit her on the Web.