The first of many erotic insertions (this particular act was illegal in several states until just last year) occurs on page six. Just a page and a half later comes the first of many existential pangs, this one provoked by a diorama at the Museum of Natural History:
“The wolves running in the night were magnificent. At one time those taxidermied mannequins were powerful, bloodthirsty, and pure, living on the outskirts of mankind and his petty concerns. Gazing at those creatures, I felt a hollowness in my chest, a feeling akin to infatuation. Their freedom exhilarated me.”
Can porn and philosophizing mix happily? The Marquis de Sade thought so, as did Henry Miller—but Walter Mosley must be the first writer ever to foist a “sexistential novel” on his unsuspecting public. A fixture of the New York literary establishment, Mr. Mosley is best known as the author of a series of detective novels featuring Easy Rawlins—Devil in a Blue Dress (1990), the first in the series, was made into a movie starring Denzel Washington. Though Mr. Mosley has experimented with various genres over the last 17 years—sci-fi, political tracts, “literary fiction,” young adult (and in April he plans to publish a how-to book called This Year You Write Your Novel)—nothing in his motley oeuvre remotely resembles the triple-X symposium of Killing Johnny Fry.
Don’t let the subtitle fool you: This is a stroke book only lightly embellished with “deep” thinking about the meaning of life, or anyway about the life of Cordell Carmel, our wolf-infatuated narrator. A mild-mannered 45-year-old translator, Cordell is unhinged—and then transformed into a priapic world-beater—by the erotic insertion witnessed on page six: He accidentally walked in, unnoticed, on his girlfriend Joelle, who was being comprehensively sodomized by the eponymous Johnny Fry. Cordell’s transformation takes some time—a week or so—and the added stimulus of repeated insertions of the several kinds our inadequate anatomy admits. He learns, after some 280 pages of sex, to experience the knowledge that human beings are “sexual creatures.”
For those who require a plot in addition to character development, there’s Cordell’s homicidal intent, announced in the title and again in the novel’s first sentence: “I decided to kill Johnny Fry on a Wednesday …. ” But the proposed murder, though it sets him “apart from all those other common lovers,” is only a footnote to the catalog of Cordell’s erotic encounters (and those he watches on a pornographic DVD called The Myth of Sisypha).
As far as I know (and I herewith virtuously deny any expertise in the matter), all porn is episodic, and the episodes always drag on too long. This novel is no exception: The sex scenes pop up, so to speak, with numbing regularity and require an endurance that would be impressive in a 17-year-old, probably chemically induced in a 30-year-old and just plain unseemly in someone Cordell’s age.
Even more embarrassing than our hero’s heroic potency are his flashes of insight: “I realized that I had gone through my whole life starving and I never even knew it. I was angry at Jo[elle] and Johnny, but the real source of pain for me was that I had never known how empty and unfulfilled my life was. The sum total of my forty-five years was little more than the atmosphere within a hollow husk of a shucked snakeskin.” If that last metaphor seems out of place in a Manhattan setting, try this: “She groaned, bellowed actually, like some large woodlands creature in ecstasy over the wild.”
It’s an urban jumble: Central Park is the scene of one of Cordell’s fervid couplings; he picks up a new lover in the subway; on Sixth Avenue, he shares his umbrella with a young man who offers him a blow job; in Grand Central Terminal, he kills time in a bookstore: “I thumbed through John Updike, Colson Whitehead, Philip Roth, and a sex book penned by a popular TV sex star. All of them had their merits, but I realized that I wasn’t in a reading mood.”
Just as well, because that very night he’s invited to attend the Sex Games, an annual event held in secrecy “in special warehouses in Brooklyn and the Bronx.” I’ll spare you the details.
Did I mention that Cordell is a black man, that Johnny Fry is white, that Joelle has “copper-brown” skin, and that the color of every other character in the book (most of them sex-starved females in their 20’s) is painstakingly cataloged? I don’t mean to be facetious when I say that their racial characteristics are only skin-deep: Walter Mosley doesn’t care what color you are as long as you don’t stop fucking.
Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer.