Tag Archives: Incognegro

The painter of trite and the spectre of white

I’m reading Mat Johnson’s novel Pym. One of the characters is a fan of an artist pretty obviously modeled on Thomas Kinkade, the kitsch-sodden “Painter of Light” who recently died at 54. When the character asks a friend what he thinks of one painting, the friend replies: “It looks like the view up a Care Bear’s ass.” That line’s been cracking me up all morning. It may not be as elegant as Joan Didion’s takedown — she thought Kinkade’s cottages and houses looked so comfy that they bordered on sinister, as though they’d been designed to trap Hansel and Gretel — but it gets the job done.

As for Pym, I’m having a great time with it. The hero is an African American academic — “blackademic,” as he puts it — obsessed with Edgar Allan Poe’s enigmatic novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. His discovery of a manuscript suggesting Poe’s work was based on fact leads him to charter an expedition to Antarctica in search of Tsalal, Poe’s island of ultimate blackness, where the natives are so dark even their teeth are black. (Don’t worry if you haven’t read the novel — hardly anyone can get through it. Johnson provides a perfectly serviceable precis.) As you would expect from the author of Incognegro, Johnson turns notions about racial identity and prejudice on their heads, and the book is loaded with satirical jabs that can make you wince as often as you laugh. 

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Approved authors 7

It’s taking longer than I expected, but I’m talking about some of the books I’ve read and appreciated the most this past year. The majority were published in 2008 and a few were written by people I’ve had some contact with, whether e-mail or in person, but they’re here because I enjoyed them and I think you will, too.

INCOGNEGRO by Mat Johnson, Vertigo, 2008.

Incognegro is not simply the most exciting thriller I read in 2008, it’s also one of the best historical tales and a pretty intriguing mystery to boot — a place where where themes leading back to Ralph Ellison, James M. Cain, Erskine Caldwell, Richard Wright and Raymond Chandler merge, entwine and draw together into a clean, satisfying narrative knot. And because it arrives in the form of a boldly drawn graphic novel, you don’t even have to wonder what the film version would look like. It’s already there on the page.

mat-johnsonJohnson’s story, chiefly set in the Depression-era American South, centers on Zane Pinchback, an African-American writer for a newspaper modeled on the New York Amsterdam News. Pinchback is so light-skinned that he can pass for white, enabling him to travel undercover and write stories exposing lynchings under the nom de voyage Incognegro. (Johnson bases this partly on the exploits of Walter White, whose autobiography A Man Called White is one of the overlooked classics of American literature.) After one too many close calls with murderous rustics, Pinchback is ready to pack it in, start writing under his own name and take his place among the writers of the Harlem Renaissance, but a murder case with a personal connection draws him to Mississippi for another Incognegro assignment, this time burdened with an equally ambitious but far less clever companion whose blundering threatens to land them in serious trouble. It also draws the attention of a Ku Klux Klan official who is determined to unmask the Incognegro and make him the guest of honor at an extra-special necktie party.

Since Incognegro is a graphic novel, I can’t offer any standout passages, but this sample page (which shows Pinchback trying to rescue a young black man while presenting himself as a member of the Klan) should give you a taste, as well as an example of Warren Pleece’s dramatic artwork:


Johnson’s story is loaded with insider details on Klan lingo and practices, such as dropping AYAK and AKIA — codes for “Are you a Klansman?” and “A Klansman I am” — into conversation. Johnson keeps ringing new changes on the themes of identity and racial roles, bringing it all to a head with a honey of a twist ending.

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