Among the Wild Mulattos
By Tom Williams
Texas Review Press
Reviewed by James Yates
Fiction about racial identity isn't often associated with humor. Even the bitingly funny moments in classics are often rendered in dialogue (Nella Larsen and Zora Neal Hurston, for example) or balanced against excruciatingly realistic depictions of setbacks, stereotypes, and the process of making one's way against sociological odds.
Among the Wild Mulattos, the latest collection from Tom Williams, infuses humor and magic into an aspect of race, biracial identity. But Williams doesn't minimize the complexities and awkwardness biracial people experience; the atmospheres here are somber and infused with the occasional move into very dark humor. Immediately after finishing the book, my brain latched on to its subtle, hilarious moments. After a few days, though, the seriousness of the subjects took greater shape. In a way, this highlights the various binaries at play in these pages. Williams is a naturally detailed and humorous storyteller, and there's nothing funny in these stories just for the sake of it. At times, the humor ties into the old adage of not knowing whether to laugh or cry.
The collection opens on a daring note, with "The Story of My Novel, Three-Piece Combo with Drink," in which a frustrated writer sells himself to create a novel as a PR stunt for a small fast food franchise, Cousin Luther's. His idea unexpectedly takes off as a perverse writing residency, but eventually, corporate hands get too involved, and he's left to realize that his future work will always be marked by his corporate novel. Stories about the creative process are tricky. Sure, there's a lot to be mined from failure, writer's block, and the financial setbacks of a creative life, but most stories about those themes are nothing more than winks to other writers. But Williams goes beyond this, hinting at a horrible future where writers can only be properly compensated by shilling for corporations in the guise of creativity.
As I'd predicted, other chains tried to duplicate the success, the national ones chasing after King, Crichton and Grisham, though no deals were ever made after my royalty arrangement—the sole mistake Cousin Luther's made as first time publishers—was learned. If a nobody like me was getting twenty-five percent, many reasoned, the costs for an author of note would certainly eat most of the potential profit.
Williams's other stories explore identity in subtle ways, even if the foundations and plots are straightforward: a predatory pornographer attempts to put a logical spin on his business plan; a hapless man seeks the services of a mysterious couple touting "movie star entrances," a celebrity impersonation business that sees ups, downs, and divided loyalties; a group of artist's models stages a small rebellion in the face of stereotypes and privilege; a man in the future revels in his status of being the only person to have never appeared on television; and in an almost film noir turn, a black man's life is taken over by a double, to the point that identities are forever altered.
"The Hotel Joseph Conrad," a story of a magazine writer's search for a possibly non-existent hotel, serves to foreshadow the final, titular story. "Among the Wild Mulattos" is written in a highly old-fashioned vernacular, formed as an anthropologist's journal or remembrance. Consider Williams's opening lines in their archaic grandeur:
Not long ago, at the beginning of this new century, I received from my maternal uncle a rather fateful phone call. I hadn't spoken to Uncle Dalton in years, hadn't seen him since my high school graduation, when he whispered that if I moved far enough away from my parents' northeastern home, with my complexion, manner and intellect, I might pass for white.
This blend of old language and twenty-first century identity works beautifully, especially as it calls attention to a sense of "other" that still plagues our society and discourse. The narrator quickly assimilates himself into a community of mulattos, some who stay behind, and some who venture into the outside world, which is referred to with derision:
They feared the influences I might bring, as an outsider, especially to children, who, I learned, were free to leave once they turned sixteen. They might also join those who worked in the outer world, which everyone called Two Box, as in the two boxes one had to choose from on applications and the like: "White" or "Black."
Through an affair with a young woman in the compound, the narrator believes he's found love and a place to call home. It's then revealed that other trickeries and deceptions are at play, and an escape leaves a handful of characters unsure of what truly constitutes home. This metaphor is beautiful, as it doesn't deny racial identity or play into the notion of common humanity that we'd all love to believe is colorblind. The story is too long to simply call a story, but also too short to deem a novella. Williams packs a wealth of information and imagery into it, and creates a unique collection with a definite unifying theme. Racial tensions and confusions aren't limited to cities, suburbs, or even make-believe worlds, and other divisions and selves can work in a sort of perverse harmony with them. Williams isn't searching for immediate resolutions in these stories. He lets the variety of scenarios work to show just how deep these problems and fears can be, but he also lets the storytelling stand on its own. The number of potential influences in this book are staggering (Colson Whitehead's bemused, smart narrators; Amber Sparks's faint touches of grotesque magic), but never does Williams veer from his own voice and power.