Born again

Charles Johnson's follow-up to 'Middle Passage' revives a living, breathing Martin Luther King Jr.

In the 30 years since April 4, 1968, when he was gunned down outside a Memphis motel room, Martin Luther King Jr. has become an icon so powerful that it's hard to see the man behind the face. Billboards around Seattle celebrating this year's MLK Day featured a reverent portrait of King with the tagline, "Thanked him lately?" The as-if-to-Christ invocation was obvious and unnerving. It made me wonder if our zeal to proclaim our dedication to racial piety (a bit too) publicly hasn't caused us to turn King into a figure who's known by our children as we knew those other February holidaymen, Lincoln and Washington: as cartoon faces thumbtacked to the teacher's seasonal corkboard, enjoying their two weeks before they're replaced by March's lions, lambs, and shamrocks.

Dreamer

by Charles Johnson; Scribner, $23

Johnson reads at Elliott Bay Book Co., 3/27 at 7:30

From the first page of Dreamer, his breathtaking new novel, it's clear that Charles Johnson wants to revive the flesh-and-blood King—that he wants to feel the physical and psychological weight the minister bore in his final two years. The novel opens during the Chicago riots of 1966, the summer when momentum began to tilt away from King's nonviolence and toward the angry fists of Black Power. Matthew Bishop, a young volunteer who serves as Dreamer's narrator, reluctantly wakes the civil rights leader to introduce him to Chaym Smith, a man who bears an astonishing facial resemblance to MLK. In a filthy South Side flat (rented to dramatize the horrid conditions in which much of black Chicago was housed), King rolls over and crushes a pillow against his chest, keeping his eyes closed, "hoping whoever had come would go away, at least for a few seconds more." He hasn't slept in two days, but he's more than tired; he's weary on a biblical scale. "For ten years," writes Johnson, "he'd been God's athlete, traveling nearly eight million miles (one-fourth the distance to Mars) back and forth across a country as divided as it had been during the civil war.... [He was] more tired, acclaimed, hated, gaoled, and hunted than any other Negro in history."

A plan is hatched: Bishop and another volunteer will take Chaym Smith to a downstate Illinois hideout (nicknamed the Nest) and tutor him in King's philosophy, mannerisms, dress, and speech, preparing for the day he'll be used as a decoy.

There's a point about halfway through Dreamer, in a scene in which Smith trains himself in the grooming habits of his nobler double, where you realize just how close Johnson gets to King. "Awakening the next day at 5 a.m.," Johnson writes, "his eyes puffy, [Smith] put aside his razor, substituting for it the distinctly black ritual of shaving with the smelly depilatory powder ('Magic') used by the minister and, if truth be told, millions of black men with sensitive skin. It lit up the farmhouse with a smell like sulfur or eggs gone south after he mixed it with cold water, spread it on his face with a spatula, let it harden for five minutes, then scraped it off." Like King, Smith tops off with Aramis aftershave.

How close does Johnson get? Close as skin.

Smith's study of King acts as an ingenious narrative device that allows the novelist to rummage around in King's biography and pick apart the philosophical strands that formed the tight fabric of his beliefs. A minor scandal erupted a few years ago when scholars revealed that King had plagiarized part of his graduate-school work. For anyone familiar with King, though, it wasn't as surprising or embarrassing as it seemed, as revealed in this passage narrated by Bishop the volunteer:

I photocopied the available sermons by preachers who'd influenced King's oratorical style. This took a full day, and led to the startling (for me) and exhilarating (for Smith) discovery that many of the minister's most famous speeches were tissues of pirated material from nearly three dozen theologians and popular (white) American preachers from the '40s and '50s, their ideas and idioms, voices and vocabularies, so blended with his own blistering denunciations of bigotry that, once I brought these documents back to the Nest, we found it impossible to demarcate where the minds . . . of Harry Emerson Fosdick, C.L. Franklin, and Robert McCracken ended and King's properly commenced. In his sermons he was, in effect, not one man but an integrated Crowd, containing here a smidgen of Walter Rauschenbusch, there a bit of Gerald Kennedy, and everywhere the imposing influence of his father. In effect, the minister riffed (not unlike Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington) on the entire, two-millennia-old history of Christendom, blending its best and making that his own in a stunningly Yankee amalgam.

Smith found this discovery of some of King's sources, his borrowings, gratifying. Gleefully so. "You know, I always figured he couldn't be as smart as he seems," he said.

Chaym Smith emerges as a trickster (though I hate to use the word), a provocateur, a Zen-trained, street-talking reader of Husserl. He's the skeptical voice who cuts through Movement rhetoric to ask the tough questions: "What's the goal after integration?" he asks Bishop. "Shopping at Saks Fifth Avenue? Is that what so many civil rights workers died for?"

The answer—Yes—goes to the heart of King's tragedy as it plays out in Dreamer. His vision was not of blacks and whites shopping together at Saks; it culminated with black and white, rich and poor living in harmony and not caring about the material goods available at Saks.

Near the end of Dreamer we come full circle. We're seeing the Christlike qualities in King again. But it's a resemblance to a different Christ—the Christ of Scorsese's Last Temptation, the holy man as a man. King, observes Chaym Smith, "don't leave nothing for himself. He's about total surrender." Or, put more succinctly, the man could be boiled down to three words: "Others first. Always."

Is the decoy ever used? Only sparingly—never enough to strain historical credulity. If he were real, Chaym Smith would be remembered the way we recall the CIA's idea to slip Castro an exploding cigar—an amusing footnote that nobody's sure is true.

The book ends, inevitably, with King's assassination. But after turning the final page I found myself going back to reread Johnson's masterfully rendered set pieces: the Chicago riots, King's sermon at a suburban black church, the confrontation with ethnic whites at an open-housing march. The writing is so assured and compelling that you know that you're in good hands. Johnson can evoke King's entire history by listing the books on his nightstand; he can flow from a riot scene to MLK's history, to theology, and back to riot without skipping a beat; he can write a philosophical novel without ever forgetting he's writing a novel. One that tells a compelling story—even when you already know the ending.

 
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