Novel Excels as Tale of Human Nature and Social Commentary
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by Mat Johnson
Format: Hardcover, 288pp
Pub. Date: May 2003
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Reviewed by Thumper
I am always excited when new authors enter the scene because they expand the
dimensions of our existence through literature that is vibrant, challenging and
imaginative. Mat Johnson is a writer who impressed me with his debut novel,
Drop. I patiently waited for Johnson's second book, Hunting In Harlem. My wait
paid off’in spades! Hunting In Harlem is a brilliant, thought provoking,
humorous at times, and multi-faceted thriller that moves with the beauty and
force of a tall Hawaiian waterfall.
Three ex-convicts: Cedric Snowden, who answers only to Snowden, Bobby Finley, and Horus Manley have been chosen to be the first candidates in the Second Chance Program, sponsored by Horizon Realty. Horizon Realty renovates and sells properties in Harlem. Snowden, Bobby, and Horus are placed under the tutelage of Lester Baines. Lester wants Harlem to return to its former glory days of the Renaissance.
Meanwhile, people are dying all over Harlem, seemingly the results of everyday accidents and understandable circumstances. When a reporter starts investigating these deaths, she unwittingly tugs on a loose string that could unravel Horizon Realty. Lester will do anything in his power to see that that does not happen.
Hunting In Harlem was exhilarating. It is a thinking-person’s, action-packed novel with a wicked sense of humor. When I read the book's description, I was immediately intrigued. I get a little perky when it comes to blood, death, and violence in my novels. I will admit I thought it a little strange that Johnson was entering the realm of mystery/suspense literature. I had Johnson pegged as a writer of (hold on, I got to get my nose in the air and tighten my butt cheeks) "Lit-tra-chure", and not mystery/suspense novels. I became a little disappointed at the prospect. But, I held my discontent in check, telling myself to give Johnson a chance and see what he has in mind. I was more than pleasantly surprised -- I was enraptured. The book is more than a mystery/suspense novel, it is a study in human nature, an exploration of the black middle class, and the solid second step in establishing Mat Johnson as a literary force.
"Talking about race was like trying to have a serious argument about the existence of the Easter Bunny; no matter what position you took, you always ended up sounding either thick or mildly insane"
―Hunting In Harlem by Mat Johnson
Racism is at the heart of Hunting In Harlem. Not your everyday, garden-variety
racism, but the DuBois Talented Tenth-type racism. The novel explores one black
middle class solution to the socio-economical problems that stem from the
poor/uneducated/criminally inclined/upward mobility-challenged/ "Ricki, out of
the 22 men I slept with last year, I still don't know who's my baby daddy is!"/Ricki
Lake TV talk show guest type of black folk. I have seen members of the black
middle class cringe with lips all tight, every time a sistagirl with her 5 feet
high purple fluorescent Cindy Lou Who hairdo, or a psuedo-slanger with his pants
hanging on to his butt for dear life crosses their paths.
Johnson's treatment -- essentially a finger pointing at the big pink elephant that we pretend isn't there, but is in every room the black middle class gather to discuss issues pertaining to the AA community, is priceless. The novel's solution wasn't fantastic -- it was realistic. I know someone, somewhere has thought of this particular remedy before. I can see it in my mind's eye being carried out, which was enough to send a chill down my spine.
Despite the strong plot and solid social commentary, Hunting In Harlem is a character-driven novel. The characters are perfectly, humanly flawed. Snowden, Bobby Finley and Lester Baines were jaded, strange, and captivating. Johnson provided each of the main characters with a distinctive descriptive characteristic, which explained how their minds worked. In Lester's case, it was his clothes. When he first appears Lester is wearing a pink three-piece corduroy suit. I said PINK! I ain't ever seen, no less heard of, pink corduroy. Snowden's identifying trait was his lack of belief in anything. Bobby's defining characteristic was his novel, The Great Work. These characters, along with supporting characters were completely developed.
The character that charmed me the most was Harlem itself. Johnson brings Harlem to life in these pages, the good and the painful. After visiting Harlem in 2002 for the first time, Johnson brought it all back to me--the wide sidewalks, the recently refurbished brownstones that shine with brand new hope, the crumbling, discarded brownstones that have long surrendered their battle to time and neglect. It was as if I could smell Harlem in my dreams.
The novel wasn't quite in the same vein, as say, an action movie starring Wesley Snipes. Johnson took his time to develop his characters and speak his mind on a couple of issues without losing sight of the plot. He found the fine balance that allowed all of the novel's individual components to be flexible and adhere to each other, while maintaining their uniqueness. The book should come with a warning label: "To all new and would-be authors, do not try this at home. This is the work of a professional."
Hunting In Harlem is off the chain and running down the street! Johnson achieves a difficult feat by displaying four areas of writing mastery: Observing human nature, Social commentary, Style, and Storytelling. Lawd, and he did it so well.