Culture  /  Book Review

What Becomes of the Brokenhearted

John A. Williams’s unsung novel.
John A. Williams

THE GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL was for most of the previous century a golden icon, an aspirational myth of grand and glittering proportions. Though he never attained that grail, Seymour Krim, an ardent worshipper at its altar, perhaps best articulated the dream in a 1968 essay in which he described the hopes of fellow aspirants to “use the total freedom of our imaginations to rearrange the shipwrecked facts of our American experience into their ultimate spiritual payoff.”

By the time that essay was written, “nonfiction novels” like those of Truman Capote and Norman Mailer were changing the paradigm into something at once less exalted and even more unreachable. (Krim himself was more certain by then that journalism was Where It Was At.) And if you, like me, were a young Black bookworm in the 1960s, you began to wonder whether a Black novelist could connect as immediately and directly to your people’s sensibilities as any Black pop record that dropped on AM radio at the time. Did young African Americans need to hear any broader affirmation of identity than James Brown’s “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)”? And as far as more intimate inquiries into our psyches were concerned, could any Black novelist’s work in that decade pack as much blunt assertion and thorny romanticism in tight corners as Jimmy Ruffin’s haunting Motown standard “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted,” with its protagonist making his solitary way through “a land of broken dreams” and sifting through the “illusion” of happiness in search of a “peace of mind” he doubts even exists.

But there was at least one novel published by an African American during that same era that delivered as much edgy melancholy as Ruffin’s lament and the same hard-driving assertion of Black identity as Mister Dynamite’s vinyl 45-RPM discharges. Even the title of John A. Williams’s 1967 masterwork, The Man Who Cried I Am, was a what’s-it-to-you red cloak brandished in the collective face of white supremacy. The novel itself, recently republished by the Library of America, is an idiosyncratic, rancorous compound of roman à clef, sociocultural history, bildungsroman, and international thriller complete with an apocalyptic ending that patched disquietingly into our worst nightmares of what white America ultimately had in mind for us. Imagine a chronicle with the sweep, breadth, and momentum of Honoré de Balzac’s Lost Illusions morphing plausibly into one of Eric Ambler’s darker and more acerbic spy melodramas. Only with Black people—sad, mad, and fiercely articulate—in the foreground.