Walter Mosley is a writer not afraid to push his craft in new directions. In KILLING JOHNNY FRY, he writes a first person novel containing some of the most explicit sex scenes written by an established American author since Henry Miller and Philip Roth.
Trying something new is not unusual for Mosley. He burst onto the literary scene in the early 1990s with the brilliant mystery series featuring a black Los Angeles private detective named Easy Rawlins. Mosley could have spent the next 30 years comfortably writing nothing but books about Rawlins.
But instead he did what great writers do. He has written literary novels, science fiction books and even nonfiction works about politics. He went, in other words, where his muse and considerable talent would take him without ever abandoning Rawlins. KILLING JOHNNY FRY is a harrowing, extremely well-written story that grabs you from the first page and doesn't let go.
Of course, this being America, anything this sexually explicit is bound to set off all sorts of alarms in some circles. Think of our archaic movie rating system that allows a film with the most gruesome, gratuitous violence to get an "R" rating while anything that seriously and realistically depicts human sexuality has to fear being labeled "pornographic." Yet another reason why people laugh at us in Europe.
Well, anybody who dismisses KILLING JOHNNY FRY as pornography or salacious misses not only the point of the book but deprives themselves of the pleasure of reading one of America's greatest writers. Yes, there is some frank, really frank, sex in this book, but it is not an erotic novel by any means. Mosley coined the term "sexistential noir" to describe this work. It is a good description because the book is not about sex.
Consider the first sentence: "I decided to kill Johnny Fry on a Wednesday, but it was a week before that I was given the reason." That tells us right away that those expecting cheap thrills will be disappointed; Mosley plunges us right into the midnight world of noir.
Cordell Carmel is a successful 45-year-old freelance translator living in New York City. He had one failed marriage but has been in a monogamous relationship with his girlfriend for several years. They live apart, but he spends weekends at her apartment. They are like any other successful, comfortable couple you are likely to see having brunch together on a Sunday on the upper west side of Manhattan while reading The New York Times. Life is good, if a little ordinary.
Then one day he encounters a problem familiar at one point or another to all New Yorkers: being far from home and in need of a bathroom in a city that strangely seems to pride itself on not having public toilets. So he drops by his girlfriend's apartment on a weekday when he knows she will not be there in order to use the facilities. And you can guess the rest: he finds her involved in rather vigorous relations with one Johnny Fry, a fellow they met through his agent.
The man cuckolded: a story not quite as old as Adam and Eve but right up there. Then the novel takes a startling turn. Rather than burst in on the lovers and express his rage, Cordell, called L, silently leaves the scene without being noticed. On the way home, he stops and buys a porno tape. Over the next week, he will propel himself into his own New York sex odyssey somewhat reminiscent of the tamer one Tom Cruise's character took in Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut.
Soon this becomes a lot more serious than a revenge fling, and the story turns very dark. Interestingly enough, L learns he is something of a sexual Olympian; he's capable of incredible feats, as he explores regions of his sexuality he never knew existed, with multiple willing and extremely uninhibited women. But there is no joy in his couplings, which is why this is not an erotic book. There is no love here; the sex is not romantic, but dead and mechanical, angry and animalistic. L is a man adrift, preoccupied with death and destruction.
"I was angry at Jo and Johnny," L says at one point, "but the real source of pain for me was that I had never known how empty and unfulfilled my life was." Later, he tells us, "My emotions were like lava flowing under a fallow landscape. I was filled with rage and impotence too."
This book is a relentless portrait of a man's psychological disintegration. He loses his job, lies to his girlfriend and gets involved with drugs, a porno star and the police. He crosses over to his dark side and stays there. He discovers that he is capable not only of having a lot of mind-bending sex, but is filled with feelings of bloodlust, cruelty and perhaps the ability to kill. He steals a gun. At one point in the narrative, he starts experiencing all the physical symptoms of a stroke. But rather than racing to the emergency room, he finds relief through yet another tryst. "If the dream is strong enough, it comes true," he says, then ominously adds that "the same was true for nightmares."
Indeed. What Mosley ultimately is writing about here is fate --- that thin line that separates the ordinary life we know from something terrifying over which we have no control. If we only had left for work at our normal time, would we have been driving through that intersection at the very moment the drunk driver hit the gas? L opens the wrong door at the wrong time and the world he has known is suddenly shattered into a million pieces. L tries to reassure us, or himself, at the end of this narrative that "there's always time for redemption." But one wonders. Some doors once opened can never be slammed shut.
Walter Mosley has written a great novel here. As with all of his books, it is beautifully written. But rather than simply titillate us, Mosley makes us face the existential condition of human life and the dark side that lurks not far from our everyday world. KILLING JOHNNY FRY ultimately does what great fiction should do. It makes us think.
--- Reviewed by Tom Callahan