At the heart of Pym, a screamingly funny new novel from Mat Johnson, is "a black man who looks white."
That man is Chris Jaynes, recently derailed from his tenure-track job at a "good but not great" university because he pushed himself away from African-American literature and refused to sit on a "toothless" diversity committee. Instead, Jaynes wants to explore the intellectual source of racial whiteness, which has led him to Edgar Allan Poe's only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.
Poe's wildly flawed 1838 novel (come on now, how good can it be if so few of us know about it?) narrates a small crew's journey to Antarctica and the discovery of an island, Tsalal, inhabited only by blacks. Is is a place, as Jaynes puts it, utterly "uncorrupted by whiteness."
With nothing but time on his hands, and enough proof (for him) that Tsalal might really exist, Jaynes assembles an all-black crew and sets off for Antarctica in search of a tropical island in the midst of a whole lot of ice. As setups for novels go, this is pretty convoluted. We are to understand that Pym is a fun house mirror reflection of another book that was pretty much a fun house mirror all on its own.
But Pym works — really works — because it's so funny. And erudite, without condescension. Reading Pym is like opening a big can of whoop-ass and then marveling — gleefully — at all the mayhem that ensues.
I could reveal that the Arthur Gordon Pym of Poe's original turns up in Pym as "a drunken, 200-year-old pickle" in a place he calls heaven. I could reveal that the border between white and black — or ice and a tropical island — may be ash. I could even suggest that Chris Jaynes and some of his crew find what they're looking for.
But I don't want to drive away the literati, who could have as much of a field day with this book as critics have had with Poe's original. And I don't want to deter lovers of fantasy and adventure, for whom this novel will be a rockin' good read.