Among The Wild Mulattos
by Tom Williams
Texas Review Press, 2015
With its dizzying mix of lush, florid syntax, deadest-of-deadpan humor, and – for lack of a better word – unusual plots, Among the Wild Mulattos stands as its own style, its own genre, its own unique voice, much like the unique characters who populate Tom Williams’s strange, almost surreal worlds.
Each of the ten stories in Among the Wild Mulattos explores identity from a fresh angle. The at-least-semi-aggrieved narrators of these stories each have their own complex relationship with racial, national, and/or moral identity, revealed through their struggles to, say, retain their own identities as artists or purveyors of Internet smut, or to attain new social statuses by hiring entrance coaches or establishing a successful network of author lookalikes. That is the core pleasure of Williams’s work – being surprised by both the off-the-wall plots and how each one, so wildly different from the next, is woven together so deftly by the exploration of biracial identity, or (I think Williams would argue), the very idea of identity, full stop.
The narrator of “Three Piece Combo with Drink” tries to publish “autobiographical tale[s] of racial strife in a Mid-south scout troop” (3) but finds success only by writing (or, better, lending his name to) a novel based around the offerings of a fried chicken chain restaurant. His identity as a biracial man is challenged by stereotypes associated with his choice of subject matter (he himself is initially “wary about public consumption of watermelon, barbecue and fried chicken”); so challenged, too, is his identity as an artist when his original draft is completely rewritten by the chicken conglomerate to reach the lowest common denominator. It is not only the color of his skin that brings his identity into question, then, but also his choices as a writer.
Every story is haunted by similar dilemmas, adding extra dimension and depth to the collection’s themes. Plots, however, are not the only literary elements at play in Williams’s thematic explorations – his very voice adds to the richness of the stories, to the point that the exact same stories about the exact same characters being told in any other way would absolutely lose their power. Williams’s authorial voice – a unique mixture of voluminous vocabulary, complicated traditional syntax, and driest-of-dry deadpan humor – is breathtakingly fresh for readers and highly enviable to fellow writers. The sentence structures and word choices build a melody of prose; take, for instance, the subtle phrasings and word choices in this passage from “Movie Star Entrances”:
The strange need to applaud brought Curtis’s hands together, as he believed a performance of some kind had ended. As well, he wondered if the time for his exit had not just arrived. Still, the museum staff party loomed like a promise and a threat, and he hadn’t gotten any nearer to a plan for how he might display himself there, nor had he learned precisely what this odd, melodramatic pair might do for him. (29)
I can think of at least three different ways to relay the information in this passage, all simpler for the reader, and all tremendously inadequate. Another, even more distinct example comes from the opening paragraph of “The Hotel Joseph Conrad”:
It is the most exclusive location I know. Its address is elusive, its guest list obscure. One assumes the interiors are palatial, the rooms filled with furnishings and objets d’art from the corners of the globe. The service must be efficient, if not embarrassingly obsequious, the meals prepared as for the royalty of fairy stories. I want to believe I am nearing it, whether the doors are trimmed in gold or as plain as the table on which I’m writing, though I may be as far away now as I was when my quest began. Still, I continue, hopeful one day to find myself within it, the Hotel Joseph Conrad. (83)
Notice, too, how the addition of descriptive humor in another passage from “Movie Star Entrances” adds to Williams’s unique qualities (I for one surely wouldn’t expect quality humor from a voice so strongly rooted in academic and syntactical studies): “Fascinated and spurred on to run his fingers through the various materials or feel the heft of the Styrofoam boulders or try on the rubber Godzilla suit, Curtis could also detect that Miriam had moved closer and was still examining him” (29). Subtle moments of humor bubble to the surface of each story like water in a just-boiling pot.
The blend of humor, syntax, vocabulary, and tone is much like the thematic explorations of the stories themselves: the language stands out, much like the narrators, and much like the plots. Williams’s stories each have an almost ethereal quality, a kind of half-a-step-off-the-norm feel. They are not surreal – each story is at least quasi-plausible – but they carry the whiff of surrealism. Blurbs on the front and back of the collection compare Williams to Paul Auster, Stanley Elkin, Charles Bukowski, among others. I myself would add Borges, perhaps with a bit less literal mysticism. Or, better yet, a mysticism of a different sort, a magic that appears not just in the stories themselves, but in the manner in which they are told.
Sean L. Corbin