Cordell Carmel is a middle-aged black man whose whole world – everything that he knows for sure, everything that he holds true – shifts under his feet when he walks in on his girlfriend, Joelle, getting done. Done, as in, banged. Banged, as in, the hell out of.
The man doing the honors is Johnny Fry, a well-endowed white man with a preference for red condoms. Johnny’s line of work changes with the seasons, but the one skill set he retains on his résumé is the ability to take a woman to church. Church, as in, Oh God oh God oh God!
So begins Killing Johnny Fry, Walter Mosley’s sexiest…no, raunchiest…no, jaw-droppingest book to date. This novel is a pornographic movie, only with much better dialogue and an existentialist Who am I? What am I? undercurrent attempting to serve as its redeemer. Attempting because Killing Johnny Fry is nothing more than your garden-variety, brown book cover-covering-the-cover, smut. Its purpose is to titillate, and please believe Mosley’s mission has been accomplished. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, mind you.
Well, there is if it just doesn’t work. The “man with man” discourse, based on his trying to understand his place in the world’s schema, is one that harks back to the beginning of time. It’s highly unlikely, though, that Buber had Cordell’s internal angst in mind when he penned I and Thou. There’s also no getting past the feeling that none of the characters is someone anyone playing with a full deck would want to know. Neighbors calling each other during sex; a good deed in the rain that yields a rather bold offer; naked wrestling that ends with the loser getting…oh never mind. Let’s just get on with the story. Where were we?
Oh yeah. Cordell walks in on Joelle and Johnny Fry doing the horizontal mambo in her apartment. Instead of reacting overtly like most people would have done, he leaves without being seen and gets back on the elevator. Out on the street is where and when Cordell’s life begins to change, how and why his physical desires become insatiable.
Up until then, sex for “L” was always straight-laced, vanilla, missionary, predictable; for the most part, his entire existence can be summed up in that way. Boring job, boring clothes, boring thoughts, boring boring. Joelle, on the other hand, his lover and only friend for eight years, yearns for the violence and humiliation, the degradation and pain, that Johnny Fry serves up willingly – excitedly – during their marathon romps. With Cordell, she’s June Cleaver; with Johnny Fry, she’s a fan of Savage Love. Why, then, can’t Joelle fess up to her particular fetishes and introduce a little S&M into her and Cordell’s sexual episodes? Because doing so would force her to also fess up to the violent incestuous abuse she suffered as a child that became addictive. Apparently, it’s less problematic to cheat on a significant other to indulge a fantasy than to trust that he might possibly understand and be up for the same.
Cordell wanders home in a daze. He finds himself at a liquor store buying an expensive bottle of cognac, and then eventually in an adult video store. The Myth of Sisypha. The panacea for his mediocrity. He’s mesmerized by Sisypha’s strength, enamored with her beauty, taunted by her aloofness. She embodies all that Cordell isn’t – a sad realization for a middle-aged man.
Cordell decides to kill Johnny Fry. He is, after all, the source of L’s heartbreak. The far-fetched idea morphs into an unhealthy obsession, so much so that he helps himself to a friend’s pistol. Joelle, he handles with the same brand of passion, turning their listless episodes into a three-ring circus. Cordell sexes this woman with a cold detachment that surprises even him, and each encounter delves deeper and deeper into the sadism she needs. Joelle is enthralled, Cordell is disgusted – disgusted with the masochism that’s starting to define their relationship, a relationship that’s pretty much over.
The cast of characters that moves through Cordell’s life is unlike any this reviewer has ever met – either in real life or on the pages of a book. His night out with Sisypha alone unveils a crop of interesting, um, individuals who bring much-needed theatre into L’s mundane world. Each of L’s conquests comes with her own set of matching luggage, and these bags are loaded down with eye-crossing insanity. Lucy with the dull feminist boyfriend. Sasha’s reallyclose relationship with her brother. The (pages after pages of) sex that accompanies fits perfectly with Cordell’s mindset – confusing and unbelievable.
Here’s the bottom line: Killing Johnny Fry is not classic Walter Mosley. Not Easy Rawlins, not Socrates Fortlow, not even The Man in My Basement. This book is the culmination of an author’s gamble on stepping out of his comfort zone and shocking the hell out of his fans. However it goes down – smooth or triggering heartburn – depends on the reader. But be forewarned: Either way, it’s a shocker.