Charles Johnson was one of the late John Gardner’s most successful writing students—Raymond Carver was the other—and in Johnson’s fiction the influence shows. It shows most in Johnson’s passion for ideas and in the way that, throughout his career, he has practiced what Gardner termed “moral fiction” and Johnson prefers to call “responsible fiction.” Nowhere is Johnson’s sense of responsibility to reader and society alike more evident or important than in Dreamer, his latest, as well as riskiest, novel.
Much of Johnson’s story takes place in Chicago during the summer of 1966, the year Martin Luther King, Jr., made the risky decision to take the Civil Rights movement north. Johnson’s narrative ploy is nearly as daring, though not unprecedented. Playing a variation on a tactic exploited so brilliantly by E. L. Doctorow, Robert Coover, Don DeLillo, Salman Rushdie, and others, he weaves together history and imagination, historical personages and fictional characters. One of Dreamer’s two most important imagined characters is the novel’s semiautobiographical narrator, Matthew Bishop. “Cursed with a shy, Victorian presence,” the frog-eyed, bespectacled, and bookish Bishop dropped out of college following the death of his mother the year before and joined the movement as a way to keep her already fading memory alive. Bishop, who reveres his mother (who, in turn, revered King), never knew his father, one of the novel’s several literal and metaphorical deadbeat dads who are the polar opposites of King and the responsible novelist.
Part of Bishop’s Southern Christian Leadership Council job involves “recording the Revolution, preserving its secrets for posterity—particularly what took place in the interstices.” One of those interstitial events is the arrival of Chaym Smith at the “foul-smelling flat” rented for King in Chicago’s “Slumdale.” Unlike Saint Peter, who denied Christ three times, Bishop announces Smith’s coming three times. “There’s someone here to see you,” he tells King. “I think you’d better take a look at him”—and well he should, for Smith is a dead ringer for the soon-to-be-dead King, his mirror image. Like all mirror images, however, Smith is a figure in reverse. Likened at one point to a photographic negative, Smith seems in many ways the negation of everything King represents. He is “the kind of Negro the Movement had for years kept away from the world’s cameras, sullen, ill-kept, the very embodiment of the blues.”
The startling, fantastic physical similarity between the two men serves to underscore the differences in the backgrounds of these two equally gifted individuals. One is beloved and encouraged by his family, the other orphaned, crippled, his formidable intelligence and good intentions gone at first awry then to waste, his Kinglike dreams turned into nightmarish reality. Yet even after so much bad luck and worse treatment, Smith still wants to be of use. Knowing of the threats made against King (indeed, having been attacked himself by those who mistook him for King), Smith offers to be his stand-in (“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends,” as the Bible puts it). As a civil war rages in Chicago and throughout the United States, Smith wants to play a part, but the war without is matched by the war within the enigmatic Smith, a man at once self- sacrificing and suicidal, reverential and resentful. If, as King wrote in Chaos or Community (1967), “A riot is at bottom the language of the unheard,” then in Smith one finds just such a riot of conflicting voices and motives. Even the noble King vaguely fears the lowly, servile Smith to some extent: “You keep that man away from my wife, you hear?” However, King also wants to help Smith, to save him, and so he tells Bishop and another volunteer, Amy Griffith, to take Smith to a remote house that Griffith’s grandmother owns in southern Illinois and teach him about the Civil Rights movement.
Once away from King, in the company of the two naïfs—Griffith and Bishop— Smith makes it clear that he has no interest in either the movement or salvation. Unwilling to be taught, this “remarkably talented mimic” wants only to learn about King so that, the reader suspects, he can undermine King in some unspecified manner in much the same way he seeks to undermine Bishop’s faith in history (one more narrative lie), family (just so much kitsch), and nonviolence. Yet even as Smith plays Dionysus to King’s Apollo, a Darth Vader easily seducing Bishop with the power of the dark side, he also teaches Bishop the ways of self-control he learned at a Buddhist temple in Japan.
Back in Chicago, this deeply divided figure, caught between spiritual yearning and murderous resentment, undergoes a conversion experience of sorts. Hearing King speak at a black church, Smith experiences the good in King firsthand, a good that for all his physical resemblance to King, Smith can recognize but never share (all this in language that clearly echoes Claggart’s similar recognition concerning the essential goodness of the charismatic, though inarticulate, Billy in Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Foretopman). Yet even as he comes to understand so acutely his own powerlessness, his inability to be what King is, Smith also hears himself, his deepest, truest self, in King’s voice. Afterward,...
(The entire section is 2223 words.)