Black American in Paris
The Man Who Cried I Am is the kind of novel that many novelists dream of writing--a bulging bag that seems to contain everything the author knows about life. It is a book that hums with sound and smell, and a good deal more hate than love. Its greatest strength is in making the reader feel the height and solidity of the oppressive wall that Max, Harry and others must negotiate daily, just to hoist themselves up to safety, to be able to say, "I am." In his introduction to the new edition, Walter Mosley compares it to The Odyssey and Max to Odysseus. "And the journey home is more dangerous than Odysseus could ever imagine," he writes with reckless abandon. The minutiae of Max's existence are crammed in, from his talent to his paranoia, down to his culinary skills. An odd touch of authenticity is added by the graphic descriptions of a rectal illness that plagues him throughout. The Man Who Cried I Am takes lungfuls of breath from the author's angry energy, and from his ability to convey to the reader his belief that he is uncovering hidden truths.
While Williams succeeds in bringing Max Reddick to life, he fails to make him likable. Max is a bristling bundle of conspiracy theories, glued together with hatred for white men and desire for white women. The latter seems at times closer to sadism than affection. Nothing good happens to Max--a job at Pace magazine (for Pace, read Time), a White House speechwriting assignment--that is not the product of white men's cynical maneuvering. There is scarcely a white male character who isn't a creep, and hardly a white female character who is not the target of the "cocksman" Max fancies himself. From one point of view, it is a bravura depiction of a peculiar pathology. From another, it feels as if Williams, intending to create a hero, has brought into being an emotional Frankenstein.
Williams emerged as the patience of the civil rights movement was hardening to anger, and he has always been an angry writer. His books are apt to take anger as a viable substitute for morality. His first novel was called The Angry Ones. In 1962 he edited a collection of writings called The Angry Black, to which he himself contributed a story about a writer, Wendell, who tries to seduce a white woman in her own home. She first welcomes his advances, then tries to disengage herself as her son is heard approaching, but Wendell holds her in a clinch just long enough for the 9-year-old to see them. By any standard of decency, Wendell's rationale is tantamount to child abuse: "no matter how his mother explains it away, the kid has the image for the rest of his life."
It is a form of revenge that Max Reddick could as easily have taken. In Max's eyes, bad luck is a stranger to whites--"What have you got to be nervous about?" he teases an associate. "You're white"--whereas almost every misfortune in a black life is traceable to color. Such an apprehension is enough to drive someone mad, and at times, rereading this novel, I felt that Max had taken leave of his senses. "Dying violently was a European habit," he reflects at one point, thinking of a French friend:
All other deaths were commonplace. A European learned by his condition to expect catastrophe and invariably that was exactly what he received. In Europe, a winner was one who bested those common deaths arbitrarily assigned to others. You crawled, kissed behinds, ate merde, and grinned like you loved it. Living was everything. The final act of death was of no consequence; it was the living while everyone around died that counted.
Max's sexual politics are likely to seem equally unappetizing to a present-day readership (and probably did to many in 1967). Women are there for the taking. Max is the kind of fellow who passes the time in his office making lists of those he has slept with. He and Harry keep up a running joke about the unique delights of "redheads." The novel is shot through with reflections such as this, on Max's Dutch girlfriend, Margrit: "Time sped by. Now, she was almost thirty. In Europe that made you an old maid or a lesbian. Or a whore. Managing an art gallery hadn't helped. She had gone through a couple of painters, or more correctly, they had gone through her."