Review: ‘Loving Day’ by Mat Johnson

Loving Day. Mat Johnson. Spiegel & Grau. 287 pages. $26.
Loving Day. Mat Johnson. Spiegel & Grau. 287 pages. $26.

Mat Johnson’s latest novel is a bracing jolt in a troubled time, administered with ruthless wit and piercing insight. From its significant opening line — “In the ghetto there is a mansion, and it is my father’s house” — Loving Day, about a biracial man’s fumbling search for identity, is a vital contribution to the ongoing conversation about race in America. The novel is not a polemic; it’s a comic but incisive social commentary on blackness, whiteness and otherness, but it also has plenty to say about love, family and the repercussions of allowing others to define us.

Johnson, who’s also the author of the hilarious satire Pym, is often compared to Kurt Vonnegut, and for good reason: Both writers excel at satire and view their characters and stories with a mordant dark humor. In Loving Day — named for an unofficial holiday celebrating the 1967 landmark Supreme Court case declaring laws against interracial marriage unconstitutional — Johnson introduces the dilemma of Warren Duffy, who has traveled to Philadelphia to take possession of his dead father’s dilapidated house. Warren grew up in Philly but never quite felt at home there. More precisely, as the son of a white father and African-American mother, he never felt black enough.

“I am a racial optical illusion,” he says. “The people who see me as white always will, and will think it’s madness that anyone else could come to any other conclusion, holding to this falsehood regardless of learning my true identity. The people who see me as black cannot imagine how a sane, intelligent person could be so blind not to understand this, despite my pale-skinned presence.”

A not particularly successful comic book artist, Warren left the city for an illustration program in Wales (“where dear Lord I have never felt blacker”), but he has returned with his marriage (to a white woman) in tatters. Then, at a comic book convention, he meets Tal, a cynical Jewish teenager who turns out to be his daughter, the product of a careless high school assignation. Warren’s reaction to this discovery can only be labeled contradictory: “She’s even darker than I am. I’m proud: I knew I had more black in me than my own appearance implies. I’m jealous: that melanin should have been mine.”

Tal comes to live with Warren in the decrepit mansion, where crackheads roam, the roof gapes open under the stars and — maybe — ghosts appear. Trying to find the right school for Tal proves difficult. Warren wants to enroll her in a school that celebrates African heritage but knows she won’t fit (“I’ve created a white girl”). Then another student tells Tal about the Mélange Center, a charter school that emphasizes biracialism. Tal is thrilled, but Warren is opposed. As far as “mixed” people go, Warren tells her, “They are black people who hate being black, and the only reason they don’t try to be white is that white folks won’t have them.”

But Tal insists, and to afford the tuition Warren agrees to teach art at the school, which squats in trailers on land deep in the woods. And soon he too is embroiled in Mélange, which starts to feel less like an academic institution and more like a cult.

Also the author of the novels Hunting in Harlem and Drop, the nonfiction book The Great Negro Plot and the graphic novels Incognegro and Dark Rain: A New Orleans Story, Johnson has a great deal of fun fleshing out Mélange and its passionate true believers, who include a giant named “One Drop” (for the old rule that anyone with a drop of African-American blood is automatically black); Spider, a friendly transgender tattoo artist; and the cool, sexy Sunita Habersham, who drives Warren into fits of lust.

After taking Mélange’s “Balance Test,” which reveals the race you most identify with — questions include “Was O.J. guilty?” and “What race was Jesus?” — Warren finds himself warming slightly to this new world order. But not everyone likes the idea. His best friend Tosha wants to know how celebrating half-white heritage helps anybody. “We’ve got black boys being used for target practice by white cops out there, we’ve got a prison system overflowing with victims of white judgment. We have a crisis. Right now. Not in the eighteenth century, not in the civil rights era, but right now. How does them quitting blackness help the Trayvon Martins out there?”

This is the sort of provocative question Loving Day asks, with unmerciful honesty but no rancor. Warren doesn’t know the answer. Maybe none of us do. But Johnson reminds us that maybe what’s most important is being true to ourselves and holding those we love close — whatever color we deem ourselves to be.

Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald’s book editor.