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Washington Post Book World
Friday, February 16th, 2007
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Killing Johnny Fry: A Sexistential Novel

by Walter Mosley

High Infidelity

A review by Tracy Quan

Walter 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 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 places, with neighbors, colleagues, his unfaithful girlfriend and strangers. He's not exactly liberated, but he explores body parts that once were off-limits, along with 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. 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." Johnny, despite being her part-time lover, knows and loves Joelle's many roles: efficient housewife, unfaithful girlfriend, needy masochist. No wonder Cordell -- who loves her 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 nonwhite 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 an interest in soccer. These are among the telling details that make me glad a mature, well-rounded novelist is tackling porn.

When a national treasure like 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 Cordell's misadventures were too palatable, if this were a novel one could read over lunch, it wouldn't be authentic porn. Fans of his Easy Rawlins series might be put off by the surreal absurdity, but perhaps Mosley 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.

Tracy Quan, whose most recent novel is Diary of a Married Call Girl.


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