John Woman by Walter Mosley (Contemporary Novel, September 2018).
Mosley is one of our most varied and interesting contemporary authors, not to mention frequently honored, prolific and best-selling. This time out he’s offered us a striking book that combines psychological character study, musings about the philosophy of and practice of history, the internal backbiting and politics of academia, family secrets and a secret society bent on ruthlessly improving/saving the world on its own demanding terms. Oh, and this being a Mosley novel, there are also liberal doses of erotic love/sex and violence (both physical and emotional) interwoven with it all.
The man who takes the name John Woman starts out as Cornelius Jones. He’s the very bright teenage son of an erratic if loving Italian-American mother and a gentle, self-educated and history-obsessed African-American father. His emotional mom and intellectual dad pull the lad in different directions and he does his best to balance competing loyalties. The father is left disabled and the mother disappears, leaving Cornelius with an array of adult responsibilities that he shoulders as best he can.
Supporting his now-dying father eventually leads to a scary confrontation and an unplanned death that Cornelius frantically tries to cover-up. This in turn leads him to meet and have a secret affair with the policewoman assigned to investigate the disappearance of the dead man. Eventually, with his father dead and the affair broken off, the young man leaves New York with a new name and identity.
The next part of the book jumps forward fifteen years.
Now known as John Woman (a name he crafted as carefully as the rest of his new identity), he is an unorthodox history professor in a university outside of Phoenix, Arizona. John rubs many of his colleagues the wrong way, as he is dedicated to the views of history his beloved dad cherished. But he also has his supporters at the university, which is run by a secretive outfit known as the Platinum Path.
His carefully structured, if unusual life suddenly begins to unravel as the hidden body of his long-ago victim is discovered, his long-missing mother contacts him and the Platinum Path moves to recruit him into their ranks–all more or less simultaneously.
In fact, he will in time learn that none of those events are unconnected.
The book develops into a masterful and involving conspiracy theory. The unlikely yet compelling plot unfolds in numerous adventures. John is arrested, is offered a series of ways out by the influential secret society, and is rescued mostly against his will. Awarded a new start and facing multiple revelations that turn much of what John has known about his life upside down, he makes a final and possibly fatal decision to speak out.
The result is a book that climaxes in a fascinatingly dark bit of ambiguity. It has the contrary mix of literary stylishness, sharp cultural and social comment, and conflicted humanity that Mosley is justly known for.
Challenging and highly recommended.