Dreamer Essay - Critical Essays

Dreamer

Charles Johnson is a prizewinning novelist (as well as a cartoonist) with a passion for ideas and a commitment to “responsible fiction,” his term for what his mentor, the late John Gardner called “moral fiction.” Beginning in Chicago, in the fateful summer of 1966, the year Martin Luther King, Jr., took his nonviolent branch of the Civil Rights movement up north, DREAMER is (to borrow the subtitle of Herman Melville’s BILLY BUDD) “an inside narrative,” doubly so. A number of chapters, though told in the third person, deal intimately with the workings of King’s troubled mind. Longer and more numerous are the chapters narrated by Matthew Bishop, a college dropout whose job includes “recording the Revolution, preserving its secrets for posterity—particularly what took place in the interstices.” Bishop’s narrative focuses on one interstitial event in particular, the arrival of Chaym Smith, the King look-alike who paradoxically is everything that King is not, “the kind of Negro the Movement had for years kept away from the world’s cameras.” Smith has the Midas touch in reverse; he is a man whose intelligence and talent have been thwarted and misshapen. Yearning to be of service, to be like King, he is also filled with resentment and constitutes as great a threat to the Movement and to King as the virulent racism that manifests itself in Chicago.

The story of Smith playing Cain to King’s Abel serves as the foundation for Johnson’s very informative and often absorbing examination of dreams and civil wars of several kinds: within the country, the black community, the civil rights movement, and individuals. There is enough material here for a meganovel, but Johnson deliberately opts for the smallness that is in keeping with his dominant theme, that everyone has a part to play. Although earnest to a fault and further marred by some creaky language and an even creakier love story, DREAMER does succeed rather well in bringing King’s vision alive.

Sources for Further Study

Emerge. IX, June, 1998, p. 67.

Library Journal. CXXIII, April 1, 1998, p. 122.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. April 19, 1998, p. 5.

The Nation. CCLXVI, April 27, 1998, p. 27.

The New York Times Book Review. CIII, April 5, 1998, p. 14.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, February 23, 1998, p. 50.

The Times Literary Supplement. October 23, 1998, p. 23.

The Village Voice. May 19, 1998, p. 152.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVIII, April 12, 1998, p. 1.