Hunting in Harlem by Mat Johnson
Mat Johnson’s getting the hang of it. You may remember that I reviewed Johnson’s first book, Drop, a few months back for Bookslut. I was thoroughly impressed by Johnson’s absorbing, funny, and creative writing style and the story of the struggling would-be advertising exec with all of the talent in the world but none of the breaks even endeared itself to me -- right up until the end, when the plot all fell apart and left me infuriated and disappointed. This time, with Hunting in Harlem, I was hoping that Johnson would cash in on the promises his writing style was making -- the promise that this author wouldn’t just disappear into oblivion, as so many do, and that his books would be something great, his stories something to anticipate, his career something to follow. Johnson didn’t let me down.
Hunting in Harlem is starkly different from Drop in virtually every imaginable way. Johnson’s first book was a drama, this one’s a mystery and a thriller. In Drop, there was a main character who was well developed, supplemented by others who weren’t given so much of Johnson’s detailed attention and thus suffered. In Hunting in Harlem, there is a whole group of characters who are, in general, all “fleshed” out and identifiable to the reader, thus making for a stronger storyline. In Drop, we confronted the struggles and fears of a recent college graduate with dreams of escaping the ghetto that confined him for most of his life. In Harlem, we’re brought into the world of ex-cons looking for a new lease on life through a real estate program promising to clean up Harlem, bring people back to the deteriorating city, and reward the hardest working of the men with a home of his own. The differences between the two texts impress me because they show Johnson’s versatility, his ability to apply his talent to different subject matter (albeit subject matter with a similar theme of “we shall overcome”).
In the book, Horizon Realty seeks out men with prison records who exhibit a certain kind of malleability and a certain kind of animal hunger for something better and bring them to Harlem for the “Second Chance Program.” They work during the days doing manual labor, moving new tenants into the brownstones owned by Horizon. During the rest of their time, they take courses in real estate and personal development from an unusual and fanatical manager with Horizon, Lester Baines. One of the men, Cedric Snowden, is handpicked by Lester to help him clean out the apartments of recently deceased residents so that Horizon can lease them out again as quickly as possible. Through an unusual series of events with Lester and a local reporter, Piper Goines, who is living in a Horizon apartment, Snowden discovers that the company is taking the idea of cleaning up Harlem literally, killing off residents who don’t meet the moral and social standards of the managers and renting their apartments out to a “better” kind of clientele. Snowden’s morals and his manhood are, of course, tested, and a host of other supplemental characters that liven up the plot of this book are introduced. I’m not in the habit of revealing endings to books, though, and this one isn’t all that important in the review of it. What is important, though, is that the ending to the plot is more satisfying, better planned, and significantly “cleaner” than the ending to Drop.
Just because I say that he’s getting the hang of it, though, doesn’t mean he’s mastered it. As much as I was pleased by Johnson’s improvement in tying up the loose ends of his storyline this time, I didn’t feel as absorbed by the plight of his characters or as delighted with his writing. His individuality, his humor, his thoroughly impressive style of writing all seemed to be sacrificed in the interest of a tighter storyline. The key, then, for Mr. Johnson seems to be striking a balance in his writing: he needs to give himself room to breathe, room to put his talent out on full display, but also give his reader something solid, something interesting and well-crafted. I fully believe that he is able to take the best of both of his books and amalgamate them, and I for one am looking forward to his next story.
Hunting in Harlem by Mat Johnson