Walter Mosley is a prolific author. His first book was Devil in a Blue Dress which introduced Easy Rawlins, the reluctant detective–my review here. He has 14 in that series through 2016; 6 in the Socrates Fortlow series; 7 in the Leonid McGill series through 2020; 4 Crosstown to Oblivion books; and 17 standalone books with John Woman being the most recent in 2018.
The first thing I can say about this book is that Mosley has come a long way. Yet, not all that far. Easy Rowlins is a man who wants to do his job in a world that does not respect his race. He seeks the truth as well as a payday. John Woman, seven decades later, seeks the truth as well.
A big difference is that John, son of a broken but intelligent black man, graduated from Yale and then Harvard before becoming a professor at a new school in Arizona. His speciality is deconstructionist history–the study of what we do not know.
I know, history; who would have guessed? If you do not like history you probably won’t like this book. Prof Woman spends much of the book lecturing on why historians are so often wrong. The Civil War was not fought to free the slaves. How can we be sure that six million Jews were killed by the Nazis–or another 3 million Russians, Poles, Gypsies, etc? Too often we rely on flawed sources like Parsons Weems stories about young George Washington throwing a dollar across the Potomac and chopping down a cherry tree. People told the silly stories so long we began to believe they must be true.
Yes, there is a murder in the book and it hangs over most of the storyline like Joe Bflspk’s dark cloud in Li’l Abner. Part of the reason is that the name John Woman is, as you may have guessed, is contrived. After CC Jones killed a man at the age of 16, he created a new image of himself as an 18-year-old high school graduate, and after a semester at CCNY he created a completed degree that qualified him to enter Yale.
I read every page of this book. I would have loved to take his class, even though I had very little idea where Woman was headed. I also did not know where Mosley was headed. He created a direction for his protagonist to go, but I thought Woman was too smart to go that way. I read the last chapter twice to make sure I didn’t overlook something.
The truth is that Woman disappeared. The truth is, we do not know any other truth. In that sense, Mosley kept the story within the deconstructionist framework.
The story has some weaknesses. It was disappointing in places. It was not as grand as I think Mosley wanted it to be. But it is good.