Charles Johnson Essay - Johnson, Charles (Vol. 7)

Johnson, Charles (Vol. 7)

Johnson, Charles 1948–

Johnson is a Black American cartoonist and novelist.

Charles Johnson has written his first novel, Faith and the Good Thing …, with the scrupulous dedication to style and structure that [Ishmael] Reed mistakenly thinks he can get along without. A professional cartoonist who is also completing his doctorate in philosophy, Johnson is a formidably talented young man. Though he has tried to do too much in this book—touching on supernatural fantasy as well as satire, black folklore and superstition as well as realism—his ambition is on the whole more commendable than Reed's hit-or-miss flippancy. Faith and the Good Thing is, on one level, a latter-day Arthurian legend, and if the magic doesn't really work, there are some charming moments along the way….

Hoodoo magic, for both Reed and Johnson, is a metaphor for black integrity, a means of rediscovering the nurturing, and nonwhite, traditions in black experience and the untrammeled black imagination. As Reed said in a recent essay, "One has to return to what some writers would call 'dark heathenism' to find original tall tales…. I call this neo-hoodooism, a spur to originality." Yet in the case of Charles Johnson—a sophisticated, highly cultivated man—this fascination with hoodoo unhappily leads him not only to speak out in a modishly antirational voice, but also to weaken the creative strength of his novel with a heavy burden of overtalkative intentions.

Instead of realizing the magical, the "conjured" life of his story dramatically, he manipulates the details of superstition and folklore with an intellectual's schematic hand. Never for a moment are we tempted into "the willing suspension of disbelief" necessary for entering imaginatively and emotionally into an account of mysteries we do not believe in. Johnson's novel, despite his wit, his intelligence and his sensitive ear, is more often boring than captivating, because all of its magic and conjuring and allegorical complexity is hopelessly chained to the "damned fool empiricist" sensibility of its author. In Faith and the Good Thing, as in The Last Days of Louisiana Red, homiletics drown out fictional vitality, and the result is less art than sermon. (p. 11)

Pearl K. Bell, in The New Leader (© 1974 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), December 23, 1974.

This small, quick-witted novel about a Southern black girl's misadventures in Chicago [Faith and the Good Thing] is a tricky mixture of down-home storytelling and faculty-lounge chitchat. The storytelling is rich. The chitchat, consisting of philosophical jargon in several languages, is rather brittle. The heroine, a rural Candide named Faith Cross, is told by her dying mother to find life's Good Thing. She seeks guidance from a swamp witch, a withered and warty old necromancer with one green and one yellow eye.

The swamp witch messes about with chicken blood and hogs' entrails, and ticks off possibilities. The Good Thing, she cackles, "must be the right functionin' of an organism as it participates in a form, or the fulfillment of a teleological principle inherent in all matter, or …". This owlish comedy is a blackface upside-down version of Merlin's routine in T. H. White's The Once and Future King. Merlin, who had all philosophy beneath his pointed hat, kept getting his spells confused. The swamp witch, who seems confused, spouts philosophy as if she were Hegel.

This is funny in a mechanical way, but it is more interesting as a deliberate contrast to the country-speech patterns still heard in black city lingo, and to the folklore half believed in and half smiled at….

Faith's story is philosophical noodling, more smoky legend than shoes-in-the-dirt fiction. What saves it from archness is the warmth and sense of the telling…. More than anything, [the] book is a wry comment on the tension felt by a black intellectual. It shows enough narrative strength, though, for the reader to hope that Johnson will go on to try a straightforward novel.

John Skow, "Smoky Legend," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), January 6, 1975, p. 92.

["Faith and The Good Thing"] is a strange and often wonderful hybrid—an ebullient philosophical novel in the form of a folktale-cum-black girl's odyssey. It is a book bubbling like a conjure woman's kettle with African lore, preserved intact in the half-magical, half-demeaning world of Hatten County, Georgia. There are beautiful tall tales, thunder-rolling sermons, folk exaggerations ("They say it was so dark that raindrops knocked on people's doors, begging for candles just to see how to strike the ground"); there are scenes of lower-depths Chicago as the Seventh Circle of Hell; and—hold on—of Plato's Cave; there's the Buddhist view of the world as a fiery wheel of illusion and Sartre's understanding of the battle of subjects to render each other object (well translated back into the terms of the heroine Faith's experience, when to survive she becomes a whore for a time), and dozens of other virtuosic philosophical references I am too ignorant to identify….

[There] are times when the mix of [Johnson's] novel is too thick with academic in-jokes and erudite references; that's when the magic falls flat, although in principle I like the audacity of having the hideous old Swamp Woman of Hatten County, Georgia, rattle on about Plato's Symposium. It's a back-handed way of saying that all the world's wisdom rests in beings like her. But I did grit my teeth at sentences like, "In their corner of the bar, Faith tried to make her peace with the problems of change, permanence, and the free-will-destroying tyranny of history."

Fortunately, such moments are overwhelmed by the poetry and wisdom of the book. It's a "Pilgrim's Progress" fable—Faith's journey in search of the Good Thing that makes life on earth worthwhile….

This is a flawed yet still fabulous book, at its best a many-splendored and ennobling weaving-together of thought, suffering, humor and magic. (p. 6)

Annie Gottlieb, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 12, 1975.