Killing Johnny Fry: A Sexistential Novel
by Walter Mosley
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
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
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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