Hardboiled to Hardcore: Interview with Walter Mosley
[30 January 2007]
By D. Scot Miller
Writer Walter Mosley calls his new book a sexistential noir. Seeing that Killing Johnny Fry mixes incest with loneliness, golden showers with ennui, and strap-ons with a longing for connection, the description fits like a latex glove.
“I think of this book as being in the tradition of Camus’ The Stranger,” Mosley tells PopMatters. “I’m talking about loneliness, the moment when existentialism and mid-life come into contact with each other, the aloneness of people in America, the deep melancholy of America and the deep feelings of sexuality in all of our lives.”
Killing Johnny Fry
When the book was released on 2 January, readers who have followed his Easy Rawlins and Fearless Jones crime novels met a new kind of hero and, once again, a new side of Walter Mosley.
Killing Johnny Fry is the story of 45-year-old black translator Cordell Carmel who walks in on his longtime, non-live-in girlfriend Joelle being sodomized by Johnny Fry, a white man wearing a red condom. A disquieted and turned-on Cordell walks out without being seen, and begins an erotic journey of self-discovery that takes him beyond himself and the world he thought he knew.
Like Meursault in Camus’ book, Cordell has been numbed by the post-modern condition. “He’s been living in this apartment with this weird paranoia,” says Mosley. “He’s a translator and not even an interesting translator. He’s with this woman, but it’s not like he loves her. There’s a desperation he doesn’t recognize. The pain locates him like a light in the dark and that’s the thing that brings him through.”
Killing Johnny Fry is in the noir tradition; only where there would be violence in a hard-boiled novel, there is hardcore instead. After Cordell walks out on Joelle and Johnny Fry, his mind simmering over with thoughts of revenge, instead of going to the local pawnshop for a .38, he goes to the local porn shop for a DVD, The Myth of Sisypha (An homage to Camus). Instead of confronting his girlfriend and their mutual acquaintance, he keeps mum and uses the betrayal to stoke his passion and transform his life.
“All of these terrible things that we feel, that have happened to us, that we do and there’s no way out of it,” says Mosley. “Joelle has that experience. How she was so severely molested that she needed it in some way, and Cordell is even worse because he isn’t connected to anything. He sees her on the weekend, they have sex once or twice, and she says, ‘You can’t come over on weekdays,’ and he just accepts that. He accepts the life that he has and it’s a completely interchangeable life. The truth is that most of us have to live that way. It’s a hard thing to get out of in our own minds, we might not be able to get out of it at all in our own lives, in our own culture, but in our minds; to see ourselves as something special, something different, someone who has an idea which is itself original.”
Mosley is no stranger to re-invention. The once computer programmer turned best-selling, award-winning novelist and essayist has written over 25 books over the last 15 years in genres ranging from science fiction to social commentary. “If you’re a writer in America,” says Mosley, “you write one book, about one guy, again and again and again, until people get tired of it and then you retire. I write a lot of different things and a lot of those things have become real. Like I’ve become a political activist through my writing. This book reflects a part of my life. I wanted to know more about my own sexuality, especially for men.”
His subtle prolific rise has made him more than a crime novelist in the tradition of Dashiell Hammet and more an international man of letters, in the tradition of Chester Himes. And like his character, Mosley knows what it’s like to be trapped in a world of expectations. As he speaks of Cordell, the lines blur between sex and writing, writer and written.
“Everything is based on capitalism and capitalism is based on specialization. And that’s based on ending freedoms for individuals instead of making it possible. You have to struggle with that. As I’m writing the book, I realize that Cordell is not going back to work,” a still astonished Mosley says. “I keep trying to fit it in, but he’s just not going back. He never went again. This is a moment of realization. Something has to change.”
During his week-long journey into the soul, Cordell rekindles passionate and public sex with pathological Joelle, sodomizes a young photographer, has strap-on and then phone-sex-three-way with his upstairs neighbor, Sasha Bennett, who is also having an incestuous affair with her brother, seduces young Monica Wells a single mother he meets on the subway, meets Sisypha, the star of the porno he purchased and goes with her to the underground Sex Games, where he is fucked senseless and sodomized in an aria of depravity before his confrontation with Johnny Fry.
Whether or not readers will grasp the philosophical implications of Cordell rimming the photographer or lapping up a prostitute’s mother’s milk in a sex club is open for speculation, but it’s clear that the author’s motives are far more than writing a good one-handed novel.
“A lot of people who’ve read this book just see sex, sex, sex. I have to ask, what book are you reading? Even though all of the elements that are in my other books are there, maybe even more blatantly, the reviews say sex, sex, and sex. I’m writing this book to say this is the modern world. This lonely, melancholy, alienated, middle-aged man represents a great deal of America and a lot of where America is going.”
In spite of being the drab and frumpish milquetoast initially drawn by Mosley, Cordell Carmel is a classic hero, while being one of the first of his kind.
“I write about black male heroes. Black men have been forced into silence by American culture. We don’t exist. We don’t fucking exist.” Mosley said. “I realized as I was writing this book that there are very few first person, black heterosexual sex books written, a man actually talking about how sex feels. “
From Jim in Huckleberry Finn to Mister in The Color Purple, the heterosexual black male is more sidekick, prop, or foil than hero. In an age when black male sexuality is most often a secondary character as seen through the eyes and bodies of non-black-males, Cordell Carmel is given the one element that is most denied heroes of his class, vulnerability.
“Here was Cordell with Joelle, a woman he didn’t truly know, and then here comes Johnny Fry who just meets her at a party and gets all the way to the depths of her that day. Something that Cordell was incapable of reaching. And he feels bad about himself because of it.”
“It was as if I was set adrift, but not yet dying, on a lone raft in the middle of tranquil and treacherous sea,” Cordell says at the beginning of his journey, and it is from this feeling of inadequacy, raw and untainted with ego or bluster, which Cordell Carmel shines. As he encounters these people and situations, he approaches each with a greater lust for understanding and connection.
“When I went to Karen Rinaldi (Bloomsbury Publisher/Editor) with this book, she said, ‘This character Cordell is really sweet.’ And that’s exactly what I wanted. I don’t want readers to be all upset, or to think the sex is too much or it’s all so intense. Cordell Carmel is sweet. He doesn’t quite get it. He lost. He’s confused. He’s trying to make it and he needs people, especially women, to give him some kind of support in the world.”
Cordell’s heroic battle is with malaise, or Sartre’s nausea, and the void created by post-modern existence. His antagonist, more than Johnny Fry or Joelle, is the machine that has allowed his disconnection from the world, and the world from him, to flourish.
“This book is not about love, it’s about obsession and compulsion and the need to connect. Cordell is adrift and there’s nothing he can do.” Mosley says. “He can’t find himself, he’s trying to and this compulsion is helping him. With Sasha we have a person who can’t remove herself from this relationship with her mother. She can’t talk to her mother, but she fucks her brother as a way to connect. Sasha teaches Cordell about pain. I love their sex, but the primary scene is when she’s squeezing his bandaged hand, she knows she’s hurting him and she asks him, ‘Why don’t you ask me to stop?’ There’s a real connection there. You see the connection between them. He’s unable to say stop. It’s a form of understanding that he is a victim of life. He hasn’t been aware of it. She intuits that. She takes his hand, at first it’s a generous gesture, but then she squeezes to see how he reacts. The moment of connection becomes deeper”.
As with all great heroes, his journey begins at the tip of his sword, but does not end there.
“Part of the problem with modern culture is that people don’t want you to change,” Mosley says, again blurring the lines. “They don’t want you to wander out one day, forgetting to go to work and never going back. They need you to work everyday and in order for that to happen they need to regularize the world. So you have a television with all kinds of channels: sports, music, food, and you’re supposed to look at that and go to sleep and go back to work. Your world is reinforced that way so you’ll live that life. So when someone asks you about the world you’ll say the world is like this and like that. Racism comes out of that. Sexism comes out of that. What I’m doing is trying to create a whole new world that exists underneath the world we’re living in. In doing that, I’m saying there’s all kind of options for you. You don’t have to stay where you are. You can be somewhere else. You can be someone else. That’s especially true for black men, because we’re actually nowhere. It’s amazing what happens to us. It’s amazing how we strain to maintain our dignity and end up like Colin Powell, the only one who knows what the fuck is going on, but is unable to tell it.”
Killing Johnny Fry is Mosley’s most daring book to date. At a time in his career where he could churn out box-office ready mysteries, he writes a pornographic meditation on mid-life and rebellion. The only drawback is that the plot meanders at times, losing itself in its many turgid prods and thrusts. This can be explained by Mosley’s writing technique, which he will be outlining in This Year You Write Your Novel, due out in April 2007, where he likens writing to steering a rudderless rowboat:
“Writing a novel is not like you’re riding on highway to a destination, it’s like a journey by boat. You have to continually check your course so don’t miss your destination. What matters to me as a writer writing a book is the destination.”
At the end of The Stranger, Meursault realizes that life is worth living, and even though he’s in a prison condemned to death, he will fight until the last minute to enjoy, and feel, and embrace life itself. Killing Johnny Fry ends with the same open-ended uncertainty of Cordell’s fate, and the same ambiguous challenge to the reader.
“Our potential in this country as a people and as a nation is almost limitless and our vision is just a few degrees short of 360. We’re the most locked-down and locked-up people in history with the most potential in history. That’s the contradiction. The book is about that.” Mosley says. “You can find out amazing things if you’re willing to open your eyes and look out in the world. Cordell sees that getting sex is not all that difficult, a lot of people are willing, desiring it, but he changes his career and learns to trust. He becomes able to have new experiences and realizes that he can change his direction.
That’s the notion of mid-life. It feels like you’re falling, but you’re not. Find out who you are and take that path. Address your own pain. Like they ask at the doctor’s office, “what hurts?”