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books What Becomes of the Brokenhearted

Reviewer Seymour, in this reappraisal of this 1967 masterpiece of American and African literature, calls this novel "a what’s-it-to-you red cloak brandished in the collective face of white supremacy."

The Man Who Cried I Am: A Novel
John A. Williams
Foreword by Ishmael Reed
Introduction by Merve Emre
Library of America
ISBN: 9781598537611

THE GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL was for most of the previous century a golden icon, an aspirational myth of grand and glittering proportions. Though he never attained that grail, Seymour Krim, an ardent worshipper at its altar, perhaps best articulated the dream in a 1968 essay in which he described the hopes of fellow aspirants to “use the total freedom of our imaginations to rearrange the shipwrecked facts of our American experience into their ultimate spiritual payoff.” 

By the time that essay was written, “nonfiction novels” like those of Truman Capote and Norman Mailer were changing the paradigm into something at once less exalted and even more unreachable. (Krim himself was more certain by then that journalism was Where It Was At.) And if you, like me, were a young Black bookworm in the 1960s, you began to wonder whether a Black novelist could connect as immediately and directly to your people’s sensibilities as any Black pop record that dropped on AM radio at the time. Did young African Americans need to hear any broader affirmation of identity than James Brown’s “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)”? And as far as more intimate inquiries into our psyches were concerned, could any Black novelist’s work in that decade pack as much blunt assertion and thorny romanticism in tight corners as Jimmy Ruffin’s haunting Motown standard “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted,” with its protagonist making his solitary way through “a land of broken dreams” and sifting through the “illusion” of happiness in search of a “peace of mind” he doubts even exists. 

But there was at least one novel published by an African American during that same era that delivered as much edgy melancholy as Ruffin’s lament and the same hard-driving assertion of Black identity as Mister Dynamite’s vinyl 45-RPM discharges. Even the title of John A. Williams’s 1967 masterwork, The Man Who Cried I Am, was a what’s-it-to-you red cloak brandished in the collective face of white supremacy. The novel itself, recently republished by the Library of America, is an idiosyncratic, rancorous compound of roman à clef, sociocultural history, bildungsroman, and international thriller complete with an apocalyptic ending that patched disquietingly into our worst nightmares of what white America ultimately had in mind for us. Imagine a chronicle with the sweep, breadth, and momentum of Honoré de Balzac’s Lost Illusions morphing plausibly into one of Eric Ambler’s darker and more acerbic spy melodramas. Only with Black people—sad, mad, and fiercely articulate—in the foreground. 

Williams (1925–2015) was an accomplished magazine journalist and widely respected novelist who wrote twelve novels (notably, 1963’s Sissie, 1976’s The Junior Bachelor Society, and 1982’s !Click Song), nonfiction works (including 1970’s The King God Didn’t Save, a controversially critical biography of Martin Luther King Jr.), and a collection of poetry. Despite his copious output over four decades, he was regarded in his New York Times obituary as “chronically underrated.” 

Max Reddick, the front-and-center character of The Man Who Cried I Am, is likewise a celebrated journalist and novelist; he’s such a celebrated author that by the time he’s beckoned to the White House for a job interview by an unnamed president—young, charming, bearing a “large, brutishly square head” (clearly a surrogate for JFK)—the latter remarks that Max “looks bigger on the dust jackets” of his books. Max accepts the president’s offer of a speechwriting gig for which he will be consulted on racial issues, only to leave not long afterward, mostly because his advice isn’t taken seriously by others on staff. Max adds that dismal, heartbreaking experience to one of several letdowns in his crowded life. Even the African-bureau job for a Time-like news magazine disappoints as he discovers signs of petty conflict among tribes and the inconvenient fact that “most of the Africans he met did not like black Americans; in fact, they held them in contempt.” 

But those are all flashbacks that come later in the novel, which opens in the summer of 1964 with the most crushing disappointment of all: Max is dying, painfully, of anal cancer. He is in Amsterdam, meeting up with his Dutch ex-wife Margrit, whom he doesn’t inform of his illness. All he tells her is that he is “tired.” To himself, he thinks:

Bored, that’s what brought it on, bored with all of it, the predictability of wars, the behavior of statesmen, cabdrivers, most men, most women. Bored because writing books had become, finally, unexciting; bored because The Magazine, too, and all the people connected with it did their work and lived by formulae. He was bored with New Deals and Square Deals and New Frontiers and Great Societies; suspicious of the future, untrusting of the past. He was sure of one thing: that he was; that he existed. The pain in his ass told him so. 

He’s also in Europe because his friend and mentor Harry Ames has died suddenly, in Paris, of an apparent heart attack and has left something important behind for Max. Though they haven’t been in close contact for years, Harry and Max were once all but inseparable. A thinly veiled rendering of Richard Wright, Harry became Max’s mentor and comrade when they met in 1939, after Max published his first novel at age twenty-four. In the first of several detailed flashbacks, Max is driving “over the same Long Island roads that F. Scott Fitzgerald had made famous. . . . Hell, he was going to write Fitzgerald out of existence.” Throughout the book, Williams displays a Fitzgeraldian lyricism that can move from plaintive to rough-hewn as Max makes his way through a chaotic mid-century America, moving from the edge of Depression and global war to the emergence of Cold War paranoia and the portent-laden pre-dawn of the civil rights movement. 

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Through the prism of Max’s memories, history becomes personal for both Max and Harry, with the former confronting vicious bigotry in a segregated Army during World War II and then becoming all but ravaged by a tragic romance with a middle-class Black schoolteacher named Lillian, who dies from a botched abortion. Harry, meanwhile, despite his stature as a “father-figure” among Black novelists, was awarded a prestigious literary fellowship in Athens, only to have it taken away for what Harry assumes are political reasons. As with Wright, Harry had been affiliated with the Communist Party, and left. Also as with Wright, Harry leaves America behind for good not long afterward, spending the rest of a not-altogether-happy life in Paris—and under constant US government surveillance. Harry’s rejection was inspired by Williams’s own real-life experience: he was awarded the Prix de Rome fellowship in 1962 only to have it taken away from him for reasons he suspected had to do with his attitudes toward jazz, interracial love, and other matters he would directly engage in this novel. 

With Harry and Max—complex, exceedingly sensitive, and often difficult men—Williams depicts two seemingly opposite poles of Black artistic advancement, with Max painstakingly climbing the professional ladder from newspapers to magazines to subsidize his novels, and Harry leading a more fiscally strenuous existence overseas. Their respective struggles play out against a backdrop of social and political intrigue, with fictionalized versions of figures such as Kennedy, King, James Baldwin, and Malcolm X, here named Minister Q, whom Max comes to admire for his militancy as much as he disdains the King figure, Paul Durrell, who Max thinks is too indebted to the white establishment to be trusted with Black people’s future. As Max’s renown grows, so too does the resentment he feels from white and Black people. Even when one of the latter, a Harlem acquaintance, proclaims Max as “the black Ernest Hemingway, Rudyard Kipling, Honoré de Balzac . . . Richard Harding Davis, Edward R. Murrow, and Walter Winchell all rolled up into one,” it sounds to Max more like a taunt than a salute. And when a chill develops between Max and Harry, it’s likely that the bitterness is related to Max’s success. (“All the things you thought I had, you should have had being Harry Ames,” Max thinks.)

Which may explain why the very important thing Harry wanted to pass along to Max after the former’s death is a stolen government file detailing “King Alfred”: a US government “contingency” plan to detain and eventually “vaporize” Black men, women, and children “in the event of widespread and continuing and coordinated racial disturbances.” After reading the file in the home of Harry’s lover, Max places an overseas call to Minister Q in New York, knowing full well the latter’s phone is tapped.

It’s hard to overstate the impact the King Alfred plot twist had on readers, Black and white, in 1967. When first coming across this hypothetical but eerily plausible program for genocide as a teenager, I felt a cold draft similar to the one I had felt the previous summer—while staying with relatives at a military base in upstate New York—when I heard on a late-night radio account of the Detroit riots that federal troops on the scene were actually “in retreat” from the Black rioters. I don’t remember specific details, but I do recall wondering what would ensue if this pushback took on a more devastating effect—and whether my relatives or I would be at all safe from undue government reaction in that remote, predominantly white part of the world. Paraphrasing a riff by the late Black comic Godfrey Cambridge, that’s the way it was in those days. 

Such was the shock of Williams’s ominous fantasy that for years afterward it seemed all anybody wanted to talk about when they talked about The Man Who Cried I Am was King Alfred. It summoned a blurb on the novel’s first paperback edition from then–New York City mayor John V. Lindsay, who declared, “If this book is to remain fiction, it must be read.” With the FBI ramping up its COINTELPRO domestic surveillance in the late ’60s and early ’70s on the Black Panther Party and other activist groups, it was easy for readers of Williams’s novel to believe the King Alfred plan wasn’t just plausible but imminent. 

Williams’s own relationship with King Alfred seemed somewhat ambivalent. As recently as 2004, in his afterword to a new edition of the novel, he acknowledged the scenario’s ongoing relevance in the emergent reality of post-9/11 crackdowns on civil liberties. (“Homeland security sounds too very much like Fatherland security.”) Any enterprising author knows a solid selling point when he creates it. But in a 1971 interview with John O’Brien, collected in his book Interviews with Black Writers, Williams lamented that King Alfred had received disproportionate attention when compared with the rest of the novel. “The acclaim has been political,” he told O’Brien. “I wouldn’t mind so much if it was both political and literary. But the literary acclaim has been missing.” 

To repeat: that’s the way it was in those days. Novels by Black American writers were routinely combed for sociopolitical significance and, once that was out of the way, reviewers seemed to lose any allotted time for aesthetic considerations. It would have been nice—hell, it would still be nice—to have critics reach beyond racial apocalypse and talk about Williams’s ingenuous and trenchant interweaving of characters based in history and characters trapped by history. Does anybody notice how much the narrative form owes to Malcolm Lowry’s similarly harrowing account of a doomed man haunted by his past, Under the Volcano? Williams mentioned his debt to Lowry, a fellow jazz aficionado, in that John O’Brien interview, and there’s even an acknowledgment in the novel when Max and Margrit take a trip to Mexico, where Lowry’s British protagonist meets his fate: “Everybody in the town talked of a writer named Malcolm Lowry and Max smiled and said, ‘I bet that cat didn’t know half the people who say they knew him. Poor bastard: he could have used some knowing.’” And let’s talk of Williams’s wildly allusive, ferociously musical style, which builds upon the elemental, corrosive prose of hard-boiled writer Chester Himes the same way Raymond Chandler played lyrical changes on Dashiell Hammett’s low, laconic tone. (Williams was a close friend and confidant to Himes, whose tough, rueful demeanor also provided some of Max’s personality traits.)  

All these elements helped propel a compelling narrative voice that comes across like a long, strong, sometimes strident jazz ballad, alternating street-level humor with brokenhearted stoicism, especially in Max’s interior monologues, one of which openly alludes to the effect Williams wanted to achieve and, most of the time, did: 

He wanted to do to the novel what Charlie Parker was doing to music—tearing it up and remaking it; basing it on nasty, nasty blues and overlaying it with the deep overriding tragedy not of Dostoevsky, but an American who knew of consequences to come: Herman Melville, a super Confidence Man, a Benito Cereno saddened beyond death. He wanted to blow the white boys off the stand—those who couldn’t blow like niggers—before they took the whole thing and made an intellectual exercise out of it. Goddammit, yes!

Yes, indeed! 

It’s also true I wish the women in the book were treated with greater depth and empathy; most of them seem, as with many of their counterparts in postwar American fiction, outlets for sexual conquest. Still, while it doesn’t dispel my qualms here, Margrit Reddick, compelled by racism to leave her marriage to Max behind, is given one of the book’s best lines, one that’s stayed with me as long, if not longer, than the specter of King Alfred: “Enough of this crazy land . . . where everyone speaks in superlatives but exists in diminutives.”

Rereading quotes like this makes me regret something else that King Alfred, important and effectively terrifying as its conception was, did to the rest of Williams’s novel. Its presence, much like racism itself, negates the promise and vitality of everything that preceded it. Even when the stone rolls back down on Max or Harry or Margrit, even when they face the malign conspiracies and stunted imaginations of those who “exist in diminutives,” there is abundant life and promise and hope woven into their struggles.

I should be grateful to those who recognize the threat implicit in King Alfred and dedicate themselves to making sure it “remains fiction.” But  I would be a lot more grateful if The Man Who Cried I Am could finally be seen and recognized for what it is: not the Great American Novel, but a Great American Novel with all the robust, surging, sometimes heedless energy we once associated with the long-ago-but-ever-abiding dreams of Seymour Krim and bookworms everywhere. 

Gene Seymour is a writer living in Philadelphia.