Mason Ellis is the focal point of the novel. The reader never really knows if Mason is hallucinating or is dreaming what has happened. The first part of the novel sketches Mason’s youth and young manhood in a realistic mode, but as the novel progresses the text becomes more fantasy than reality. The possibility of Mason’s schizophrenia is brought up early in the novel in relation to his fantasy episodes with Celt CuRoi. A strict reading of Mason’s character as insane is too easy an interpretation of this complicated text. Certainly, the issue of Mason’s criminality and his great hoax of masquerading as a well-known black Author is cloaked in ambiguity. The reader comes to believe that Mason is in fact a black author struggling with defining his identity and somehow feeling as if he is an impostor.
Mason’s background as an African American contains many authentic touches and suggests a continuity of community that Mason seems incapable of accepting. References are made to black authors and aspects of the black vernacular and folk tradition. Black musicians such as Charlie Parker, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and the Platters pop up continuously in the text. Furthermore, the split in Mason’s consciousness represented by his connection to the Irish-sounding Celt CuRoi and his search for authentic African American identity and African heritage may in part be responsible for the conflicts in the novel. Mason’s criminality figures heavily in the first half of the novel, yet in the second part, he is able to talk to academic audiences all over the world, and his expertise is never brought into question. The two parts of his personality do not seem to connect in any meaningful way except on the hinge of his assumption of the black Author’s identity. In the end, perhaps readers are meant to see Mason’s and the Author’s identity as the same. The narrative then concerns the progressive disintegration of Mason’s consciousness as he travels back to his African roots for rebirth and renewal.
This divorce in Mason’s reality is reflected in the other characters in the novel. Mason’s family history is well sketched. Readers recognize his light-skinned mother and his renegade father as two characters who have emotional range and depth. Mason’s progression from childhood through his time in the Air Force to his disastrous marriage in Chicago also has the ring of verisimilitude. Mason’s entry into the criminal world seems less substantive. With this descent, the novel’s focus also begins to fragment. The characters of Edith, Jesus, and Brad, with whom Mason commits a bank robbery, are shadowy at best. Edith Levine is an academic who craves the excitement of the underworld. Jesus and Brad could be anybody as they become props in Mason’s growing obsession with the Author.
Nebulous characterization is best represented by the Author. The reader is never given a clue about this character. He may be Clarence McKay, or he may be Mason Ellis, who imagines himself as an impostor masquerading as himself. As the narrative focuses more on Mason’s wild hallucinations of pursuit, capture, and torture, other characters become only names who pop up in the text. This sketchy characterization becomes the norm as Mason travels (as the Author) through the United States, Europe, and Africa.
Readers are hazily informed of Mason’s extracurricular activities, in which he continuously gets free meals, alcohol, and women. In Nice, his companion is an exchange student named Barbara Ann who may or may not be appearing in his bed at night chain-smoking cigarettes. In Berlin, it is a professor, Heiner Graf, with whom he spends a riotous evening ending in a mad bombing spree. In Italy, it is Vito and nameless women. In Greece, it is Zizi Kifissias, a painter, and Melina Karamanlis, a journalist. The catalog of minor characters continues to the end of the book, with no clear rationale for their existence ever established.
Overall, the characters in
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