Walter Mosley is well known as a writer of crime and mystery novels. Needless to say, his first foray into the genre of sex writing has occasioned a flurry of skeptical and childishly embarrassed media commentary. I first became aware of Killing Johnny Fry when someone on the Erotica Readers and Writers Association Writers Forum (www.erotica-writers.com) posted the URL of Jennifer Reese's scathing review from Entertainment Weekly.
Ms Reese has given Killing Johnny Fry a place on her list of worst books of the year. According to her, the plot of this "pornographic novel" is "but a flimsy excuse for the raw sex scenes"' the writing is rife with hyperbole and cliche; the entire book ranges from ridiculous to depressing. According to her, Killing Johnny Fry is not even "good porn", although she then admits that she's never really considered just what might deserve that label.
Rather than dissuading me reading Killing Johnny Fry, this sex-averse tirade made me intensely curious. Could a book by the popular and acclaimed author of the noir classic Devil in a Blue Dress and the eerily spirtual science fiction novel Blue Light really be so awful?
My conclusion after reading Killing Johnny Fry is that Ms Reese's review says much more about her own lack of comfort with sex and lack of understanding of erotica/pornography than it does about Mr. Mosley's talent.
Killing Johnny Fry is indeed full of raw, extreme and even violent sex. However, the sex is in no sense gratuitous. Although the story is narrated in plain, matter-of-fact language (despite Ms Reese's complaints), it has a mythic quality. This is a story of passions and revelations, a pain-filled odyssey of personal discovery.
Cordell Carmel, the protgagonist, unexpectedly drops by the apartment of Joelle, his lover of more than nine years, to find her being sodomized by Johnny Fry, a mutual acquaintance. Cordell slips away unseen, but the experience shatters his world and his sense of identity. Previously he was a mild-mannered, middle-aged schmoe, hardworking, abstemious and responsible, a considerate but unimaginative lover. After viewing the graphic evidence of Joelle's betrayal, he undergoes a transformation. He finds himself constantly aroused, especially by the ambiguous dynamics of D/s situations. He is newly, inexplicably potent. Women are drawn to him, and he takes them when they offer themselves, bringing them to painful ecstasy even as his own orgasms reach apocalypic proportions.
Meanwhile, emotionally, he is confused and lost. He understands the emptiness of his previus life, but cannot comprehend the changes that seem to be tearing him apart. Tortured by headaches and nightmares, he turns to the mysterious Cynthia, a desembodied voice on a phone help line, for comfort. Meanwhile his world becomes more and more bizarre as he oscillates between raging lust and pitiful self-doubt, incandescent anger and paralyzing fear. In a twist that stretches credibility but works in the context of the story, he meets Sisypha, the star of a pornographic video with which he has become obsessed. She becomes his guide to a sexual underworld, his White Rabbit in a terrible and thrilling Wonderland.
Killing Johnny Fry explores the relationships between sex and anger, and between freedom and desire. This is far from a trivial fuckfest. Cordell is a sexual Dr. Jekyll; seeing Joelle's secret self, the lust-crazed, abuse-loving creature that she becomes when she is with Johny Fry, releases his Mr. Hyde. He experiences many climaxes, but little satisfaction, as he tries to understand his motives and to reconstruct his life and self-image.
In Killing Johnny Fry, Mosley also concerns himself with the complex interactions between race and sexual identity. Like most of Mosley's main characters, Cordell is black. So is Joelle. Johnny Fry is white. Mosley makes it clear that Cordell's previous well-ordered, compliant life is an attempt to make it as a black man in a white world, to be accepted and financially successful and to prove to his abusive father that he is worthwhile. Johnny Fry steals not only Cordell's lover but also his manhood, his pride as a black man. The historical echoes of slavery are there; Mosley doesn't have to harp on them.
Is Killing Johnny Fry erotic? My initial reaction would be negative; most of the sex scenes did not particularly arouse me while I was reading them. Yet after finishing the book, I found myself in the grip of intensely erotic dreams, so the work must have touched something in my unconscious.
Certainly, Killing Johnny Fry is a serious book about sex and identity -- or at least it pretends to be reading some of Mosley's coments about his own work, I began to wonder if in fact it's all a sham, a publicity stunt. Perhaps the book was intended to be exploitative, banking on its controversial subject matter to attract media attention and stir up sales.
Even if this is true, the book stands on its own merits. I found it intense, though occasionally uncomfortable. The sex is messy and dark but somehow fascinating. You can't look away. The cleverness of the final plot twist left me with a smile, and relieved some of the tension that knotted my stomach so badly that I couldn't read more than a few chapters at a time.
Could Mosley have written a serious novel, despite himself? You, the readers, need to decide. Don't pick up this book if you're squeamish about rough sex. If you're curious, though, about just how hardcore a mainstream-published novel can be, I recommend it.