I’m almost finished Dreamer, Charles Johnson’s novel about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s struggles in Chicago in 1966, and it’s amazing — the finest novel I’ve read in months. (Dreamer wants to become part of my stalled dissertation; I have, as yet, managed to fight that urge.) Early in the novel King meets Chaym Smith, his doppelganger, and seeing his own face on the body of a homeless drug addict shakes his faith in the very foundation of his Movement: Equality.
Nature was unjust. Who could deny that? But in the realm of the spirit invoked by the Founders, in God, there was no defensible social distinctions, for all creatures great and small, black and white, were isomers of the divine Person. It was a shamelessly Platonic argument, he knew that, yet of its veracity he’d been so sure.
At least until now. . . .
In no other way than the somatic were [King and Smith] equal. In fact, they were like negatives of each other. He laughed, humorlessly. The idea of justice in his life and Chaym’s was a joke. Not only was the distribution of wealth in society grossly uneven, he thought, but so was God-given talent. Beauty. Imagination. Luck. And the blessing of loving parents. They were the products of the arbitrariness of fortune. You could not say they were deserved.
Smith acts throughout the novel as a foil to the Movement’s idealist platitudes. When Amy, a young volunteer, tells of her grandmother’s and great-grandfather’s back-breaking efforts to forge a strong black community and strong family values, the novel’s narrator, another volunteer, compares her story to “being gently led into the past, a distant better time when black people were the moral fiber of the nation” (88). Smith will have none of it: “That story she told, . . . it’s a fucking lie. Front to back, it was kitsch. All narratives are lies, man, an illusion” (92). It’s a nice device: interrupting a story to expose it as myth.