From the book description, I expected more magical realism here. But although this collection wasn't quite what I expected, I'm glad to have been introduced to Johnson as a writer, through these stories. Originally published between 1977 and 1986, many of them have won or been nominated for awards and included in prestigious collections. Rightfully so. I don't think I necessarily agree with all of Johnson's perspectives, but these tales are both entertaining and erudite.
The Education of Mingo
Ooh, this is a disturbing one. A short story, but with some seriously weird and complex dynamics going on. A nineteenth century hillbilly farmer buys a young, strong slave - partly for his labor, and partly because of his isolation. The farmer comes to see the man as an extension of himself. When the slave becomes murderous, his ideas about responsibility and blame are... interesting. There's at least one academic article written about this story [Master-Slave Dialectics in Charles Johnson's "The Education of Mingo" Linda Selzer African American Review Vol. 37, No. 1 (Spring, 2003)], and it mentions a quote that I'm guessing did inspire this piece: Aristotle, Politics: "The slave is part of the master, a living but separated part of his bodily frame."
This is one all hoarders should read. A couple of young hoodlums break into a neighbor's apartment and find the fortune she's squirreled away all these years. They steal it - but may be cursed to follow her unsavory fate. It's another very disturbing, and very effective tale. It may be a story of an actual curse, or it may be a cautionary tale against miserly behavior. The author seems to think that financially struggling people are prone to the kind of behavior he describes and that it's a social ill - but I'm not so sure. You hear more stories about people unused to managing money blowing their entire lottery winnings, inheritance or insurance payout, than you do stories of people being afraid to spend what they have.
Menagerie, a Child's Fable
Another disturbing one! (I'm sensing a theme here). When the owner of a pet shop fails to return, a monkey and a dog team up to try to maintain order and social welfare. However, what actually happens is pretty much what you'd expect if all the animals in a pet store were left to their own devices. The tale makes it explicit that this is an allegory for humanity's inability to cooperate and get along - made particularly bleak by the reader's knowledge that due to animal nature, the disaster portrayed was fairly inevitable. (And, if the pet shop owner is standing in for 'god,' it's not a very positive view of 'the divine,' either.)
A longtime husband and wife have been growing older, getting fat, ill, and decrepit together. Their marriage may have lost its passion, but the wife is content and comfortable with her sedentary life of TV watching and snacking, broken up by visits to church on Sundays. However, when her husband randomly discovers kung fu movies and is inspired to start a martial arts regimen, his wife finds his new interests and friends to be pulling him away from her, to her great dismay. I felt like this story, to some extent, was probably about the author's own discovery of Buddhism. it can be read both as an incisive study of a relationship and as an allegory of an individual's relation to the greater community.
An aging philosophy professor finds himself attracted to a failing student - who then tries to blackmail him into giving her a passing grade. Again, that's what the story's about on one level. On the other, it's about self-doubt, the wonderings of an academic who has separated himself from an aspect of culture in favor of another aspect, if he has taken the right path. And about how a fresh idea can rejuvenate one.
Hmm. I think this one may be the weakest in the book. I found the narrative voice (addressed directly to the reader) distracting. The narratee is a filmmaker who only pursued filmmaking because it was more lucrative than other options, whose dreams have fizzled, and whose life in general isn't going so well.
A doctor out on his way to make a house call is abducted by a UFO. Disconcertingly, the sole alien inhabitant is in quarantine, having been struck by an incurable plague. The alien hopes the doctor can help him. Like most of these stories, it slides into commentary on relationships, race, and some (here a bit heavy-handed) philosophy.
The Sorcerer's Apprentice
"There was a time, long ago, when many sorcerers lived in South Carolina, men not long from slavery who remembered the white magic of the Ekpe Cults and Cameroons..." This tale tells the story of a young man who is honored to be chosen as one of these sorcerers' apprentice. He is full of the youthful idealism and confidence of any young person embarking on their chosen career, applies himself to his studies, and works hard. At the high point of his apprenticeship, he truly believes he has magically cured a suffering client (perhaps he has). But it seems that success is never to be recaptured... A sad, thoughtful, and well-crafted piece.
A copy of this book was provided by NetGalley and Open Road Media. Much appreciation.