Drop by Mat Johnson

Niggerati Manor. How can a blog title like that not cause intrigue? As a frequent visitor of Mat Johnson’s site, I feel as though I should have finished his works long ago. The shame of it all. I originally set a goal for myself to have all three novels (and one of the comics) read by the time the Hurston/Wright workshop rolled around. Unfortunately, television, the boyfriend, Yahoo spades, and other random things hated on this goal. Needless to say, my new commitment is to have his first two novels read before the week is out. Rarely do I read the works of one author back to back, so this should be interesting.

Mat Johnson’s Bio: Mat Johnson was born in Philadelphia in 1970 to an Irish American man and an African American woman. Five years after his parents’ divorce, Mat was living with his social-worker mother in the predominantly black, working class Philly neighborhood of Germantown.

A consistently poor student, Mat easily maintained a D average by spending class time reading novels in his lap, pretending to be asleep. After barely getting in to a local state college, Mat finally applied himself, resulting in acceptance to a year-long foreign exchange program as a sophomore to the University of Wales at Swansea, his first time away from Philly, and an experience that would change his life. Transferring his junior year to the Quaker Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, Mat’s work as the black student union president won him the prestigious Thomas J. Watson Fellowship for future leaders. For his fellowship topic Mat researched the effects of international experiences on African Americans. Using London as his base, Mat traveled through Europe and West Africa interviewing black expatriates. (Read more…)

Book: Drop by Mat Johnson
Publisher: Bloomsbury (2002 Edition)
Originally Published: 2000
Pages: 214

Publisher’s Book Description: Chris Jones has a gift for creating desire-a result of his own passionate desire to be anywhere but where he is, to be anyone but himself. Sick of the constraints of his black working-class town, he uses his knack for creating effective ad campaigns to land a dream job in London. But life soon takes a turn for the worse, and unexpectedly Chris finds himself back where he started, forced to return to Philadelphia where his only job prospect is answering phones at the electrical company and helping the poor pay their heating and lighting bills. Surrounded by his brethren, the down and out, the indigent, the hopeless, Chris hits bottom. Only a stroke of inspiration and faith can get him back on his feet.

Opening Lines:

Me: poor and broke, alone, thirty-one-years-old and only just finishing as an undergrad at a third-rate Pennsylvania state college, no work experience except comforting my mom before she passed. A man with no connections, and even if I did have contacts they’d be back in Philly, and I’d be stuck going up and down Lincoln Drive to 176 for the remainder of my life, East River Drive or West, cursed to pass the same buildings (windows, facades, steps), the same people (skin, breath, voices), the same damn trees (spruce, poplar, pine) and streets to match (Spruce, Poplar, fucking Pine) over and again and more, stuck in a city that was a tidal pool, never swimming down the Schuylkill past that net by the Art Museum or floating serenely along the Delaware into oceans beyond. And this meant pain and anger and fear because me was also: ambition and the desperation dreams create.

Reason book was selected: Before attending Hurston/Wright it was my desire to have Johnson’s books read (instead of just carrying them around in my shoulder bag). Now that I’ve met him and listened to his writing advice, I believe it’s equally important to see where he’s really coming from.

Cover art: I don’t know if either one of these covers would necessarily make me pick up the book and read a summary. The orange cover actually represents something that happens early on in the book, but it looks more like a non-fiction cover. Should I guess that this book is about Black people? Maybe that’s the point…for crossover effect. The other cover featuring the guy tilting back in a chair doesn’t do anything for me either. For one, I don’t imagine any of the main characters to look like him. Two, the sunglasses give the novel a sort of Shaft-like detective feel. In other words, the two book covers make me question the genre category.

The Positives: Johnson definitely has a way with words. It isn’t often that I can read a book and find myself chuckling at descriptions found on every other page. Just about every paragraph had at least one line worth re-reading (and not for clarity either). For those of you who are up and coming authors, Johnson definitely paints noteworthy scenes and dialogue. For 200+ pages, I sympathized with his main character Chris Jones.

At thirty-one years old, Chris Jones is finally preparing to graduate from college. Like most college grads, one main thing is clear. He needs a job. But more specifically, he wants a job in advertising. After a failed attempt at winning an advertising competition, luck still appears to be on his side. This luck eventually presents him with a job offer in London. With thoughts of ‘F Philly’ in mind, Chris makes a go of it.

What I like about Chris and all of the characters that Johnson creates is that they remain consistent. Typically, nobody does anything that readers wouldn’t expect (but in a non-predictable sort of way). In my opinion, Chris consistently acts without thinking about the future implications of his decisions. He gets a job in London. He goes. When he arrives David, his boss, gives him a place to live. Chris doesn’t ask any further questions about rent or even how much his salary will be. He trusts. He meets a girl he likes. She moves in. No questions. No research. He struggles to escape possible worries. This pattern continues on throughout the novel for Chris. No questions. No research. He struggles to escape possible worries.

Not that I believe that you should know all the answers at thirty-one, but Chris constantly needs someone to guide him on his path. His boss, David, gives him the guidance needed to be a successful Creative Director at their initial two-man firm. Margaret, David’s wife, gives him a push when unexpected events force Chris into a confused state. Even, Fionna, Chris’s live-in girlfriend teaches him a few things about how to spend his own money. And Alex, his female Philly friend, reminds him to love his places of origin and his people.

Johnson creates a community of characters which we love to hate. Chris Jones appears on the page as a pushover. But that’s what we like about him. We hate his girlfriend Fionna because we realize that the relationship will soon demise. But at the same time we realize that she’s taking care of him (in a way). We hate David for being an inconsiderate drunk, but also realize that he’s showing Chris the ropes in the world of advertising.

The standout portion of the book is when Chris is forced to take a temp job with the electric company. I loved each person that surrounded him on that job. After all, we’ve all worked with people just like them–or haven’t we? The crackhead, the religious fanatic, the boss who makes your workday hell, and the ghetto girls.

The Negatives: While there was at least one noteworthy description on every page, sometimes the descriptions were a bit much. At times I would be so into the story that I didn’t want things to be shown to me, I simply wanted more dialogue and movement. I was really invested in what was going to happen to Chris Jones. Would he be a success? What character would be introduced to his world next? Sometimes the descriptions overshadowed these driving questions.

Unfortunately, the ending fell short and was, in my opinion, unnecessary. With the potential triumphs that Chris faced toward the conclusion, the last four pages were just a letdown. Having the story end with Chris’ return to London would have been satisfactory enough for me, but the twist just didn’t do it.

Notable Excerpt: There were quite a few memorable scenes in this novel. As I flip through the book, I constantly hear myself saying ‘that one wasn’t better than this one…’ This has been a difficult decision, but in the end a choice must be made. After his unfortunate return to Philly, we find Chris Jones in a ‘rut’ as he sits in Alex’s apartment. Alex thus makes a few suggestions to get him out of the house and into a better mood.

Come on, we’ll go down to the Art Museum. It’s Sunday; it’s free till one.’

Nope.

‘Then we’ll swing down to Penn’s Landing. They’re having music today, this afternoon.’

I shrugged that away from me.

‘Then what? It’s a pretty day and you’re in a rut. You should really get out of the house.’

Why the hell should I do some dumb shit like that? America is TV and I’m sitting right in front of the damn thing already. Nothing exists that isn’t held within its cathode eye. Like Philly could offer anything to distract from its brilliance. Channel to channel click-clicking.

‘Aren’t you going to stop on anything?’ Why stop–21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26–when the next image might be beter and yet no sight is worth settling on? When the chance to forget yourself, your guild, your pain, lies just one button away?

‘Al, you know what we need on TV?’

‘What?’ she asked me.

‘More obese black matriarchs.’

‘Chris, why don’t you go for a walk?’

‘You just never see them on TV, do you? I mean, in real life we’re surrounded by them, these rotund sassy black mamas who break everything down to a wisecrack and a baked-potato hand on a turkey-loaf hip. How come there aren’t any of them on TV? They should have a sitcome with one. That’s a novel idea–they should have a sitcom centered around a loud, asexual negress, she could yell at her family every week, roll her eyes, you know how they do.’

‘Sure.’

‘Don’t laugh, it’s true–there hasn’t been a good chocolate mammy on TV since Tom and Jerry, and then they just showed her feet.’

‘Are you trying to piss me off? You know, you can go home. It’s not raining any more.’

‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like that. Not the woman thing. I was just telling funnies. It’s not just mammies, what about the coons? How are all the spades going to support themselves? Used to be when a brother could bug his eyes out a bit that was worht something. How about this–check this out–I got a brillian idea: why not put a coon in a fish-out-of-water comedy? Like this: take a jogaboo and put him on a set surrounded by literate white people not hip to his negro ways. He could jump around like a confused monkey for a bit, then they could all come to some mutual understanding…’ (135).

Rating: 4.5 out of 5. While the ending wasn’t all that I expected, the overall book was well worth the read. The conclusion and the (sometime) wordy descriptions only lose Johnson .5 a point.

Other Publications:

The Great Negro Plot In 1741, New York City was thrown into an uproar when a sixteen-year-old white woman, an indentured servant named Mary Burton, testified that she was privy to a monstrous conspiracy against the white people of Manhattan. Promised her freedom by authorities if she would only uncover the plot, Mary reported that the black men of the city were planning to burn New York City to the ground. As the courts ensnared more and more suspects and violence swept the city, 154 black New Yorkers were jailed, 14 were burned alive, 18 were hanged, and more than 100 simply “disappeared”; four whites wound up being executed and 24 imprisoned. Even as the madness escalated, however, officials started to realize that Mary Burton might not be telling the truth.

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Hunting in Harlem – Horizon Realty is bringing Harlem back to its Renaissance. With the help of Cedric, Bobby, and Horus-three ex-cons trying to forge a new life-Horizon clears out the rubble and the rabble, filling once-dilapidated brownstones with black professionals handpicked for their shared vision of Harlem as a shining icon for the race. And fate seems to be working in Horizon’s favor: Harlem’s undesirable tenants seem increasingly clumsy of late, meeting early deaths by accident. As an ambitious reporter, Piper Goines, begins to investigate the neighborhood’s extraordinarily high accident rate, Horizon’s three employees find themselves fighting for their souls and their very lives-against a backdrop of some of the most beautiful brownstones in all of Manhattan.

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Hellblazer: Papa Midnight The King of Voodoo has a long history, but where did it all begin? Reaching back to the beginnings of American slavery, Hellblazer: Papa Midnite follows the story of the curse that made Midnite immortal, from its origin in 1712 through the New York Slave Insurrection of 1741 and into the present day, where he continues to pay the price for his original sin.

Happy reading ya’ll!!

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5 thoughts on “Drop by Mat Johnson

  1. It is good to see that you are a lover of books, and good review of Mat Johnson. Sometimes going to another country or leaving the place were one became young (town were you were born) is all that is needed to change ones life forever. The Chinese saying “If you can see it, you can be it!” and there is another old Chinese saying: “Read hundreds of rolls (books), and travel thousands of miles.”

    May all of us accomplish what we see based upon what we admire and yearn for.

    Like

  2. I read Drop awhile back. I agree with you, although I was disappointed with the ending, the book was good enough for me to get over it. I just ordered Hunting in Harlem from Amazon today. I hope to have it read before your review is posted. I found an excerpt for it somewhere and you can tell that the author’s writing grew between novels. If I can find the excerpt link I will post it here for you.

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  3. Hey Blackgirl Lost,

    I like your site alot. I found it looking for another book. How long did it take for you to read all those books. How do you choose them?

    Amee

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  4. i have not yet read mat johnson’s work, though i have spent much time in philly (my good friend is also from germantown) so just reading the few excerpts made me miss it. i have made a commitment to read one non-school book a week… so i know where i’ll be coming to get some inspiration (to your site)! thanks for the suggestion to have shannon guestblog on KIPP — i didn’t think to ask him b/c i assume he’s hella busy, but it’d be better to hear his experience than to have me summarize what i find online about it! be well.

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  5. Anonymous, sorry for the delay in replying to your question. You asked how long it took for me to read all the books I’ve mentioned. I started reading around…I think October ’06. The problem is, when a book doesn’t hook me right away, the title takes longer to read. If I’m interested, on the other hand, I can finish it in a day or two. Then there is always the issue of unexpected things going on that prevent me from reading (i.e. television, the boyfriend, etc.). The real challenge is trying to finish every book I want to read before the end of August. I don’t think I’m going to reach my goal.

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