Among the Wild Mulattos and Other Tales
Texas Review Press, 2015
Reviewed by Matthew Kirkpatrick
Tom Williams’ short story collection, Among the Wild Mulattos, deftly explores characters who don’t fit into the racial binaries of black and white. These rich, hilarious tales, which are widely concerned with issues of identity and change, grapple with emotionally complex, real people in scenarios that are both familiar and absurd. These are characters on the cusp, at the border of shifts that, while entwined with racial identity, are also about the complex ways in which people struggle to belong and to stand out.
In the opening story, the brilliant and hilarious The Story of My Novel: Three Piece Combo with Drink, a writer enjoys his favorite meal at Cousin Luther’s, a fried chicken franchise, while “trying to forget” the pile of rejections he’s accumulated from magazines and journals ranging from The New Yorker to the (hopefully) fictional Boning the Muse. The narrator expresses wariness at being a person of color in a fried chicken restaurant, frustration at his own lack of writerly success, and reverence for the meal he’s about to eat. But the catharsis of comfort food soon takes over, and it’s then that the narrator formulates his master plan. The meal, “a work of art,” should have a novel to commemorate it, he decides; and thus the story shifts from a tale of unease to one of wild, unexpected success. Later on in the narrative, the writer considers a “brief prayer, wondering if God loved writers so much He’d change the contents of an envelope if they promised enough contributions to charity” before opening a letter from Cousin Luther’s. It’s the first acceptance he’s received in his career. He’s finally found success with his novel Three Piece Combo with Drink, a paean to a fried chicken franchise. But as he becomes the literary spokesperson for the fast food chain, his absurd and troubled success sends him into another kind of despair that is both ridiculous and real.
One of the gifts of Williams’ work is his effortless blending of very real emotion and experience with deadpan farce. The desire and frustration surrounding the publishing process is one that most writers have probably felt … though here, it’s what happens after the writer’s strange, lopsided victory that forms the core of the story in the transformation, both physical and mental, of a protagonist whose obsession with success (and love of fried food) overtakes his desire for artistic achievement.
In The Finest Writers in the World Today, a talent agency specializing in celebrity lookalikes begins to represent authors’ doubles, renting them out for bookstore appearances and university classroom visits. Demand for the doubles increases as publishers begin to find them more dependable and charismatic than actual writers, and the result is an increase in the celebrity of the authors as the public personas of the magnetic stand-ins begin to take over their work. The story is a comment on the tension between art and artist, between individual and celebrity; and indirectly articulates a larger issue in Among the Wild Mulattos: one that concerns preconceived notions of how one should be at a time when established codes based on appearance still mark us.
In Movie Star Entrances, Williams further explores the friction created by our desire to be noticed and to blend in. Curtis, in preparation for an office party, hires Movie Star Entrances, a firm that specializes in makeovers designed to provide subjects with a dash of celebrity that will allow them to make a “movie star entrance” at special events. Curtis laments that all his life he’d “been the only one,” a biracial Midwesterner who had felt special in a place where people like him were rare. Now, he sees himself as “just a biracial suburbanite” who had “accrued no honors” and “distinguished himself very little in any field.” The results of the makeover work spectacularly well, but when Curtis asks the firm to help him maintain his sudden cool, the story takes a very dark turn.
The collection’s title story, Among the Wild Mulattos, deals most directly with the subject of biracial identity and disidentity. A biracial character, after learning of a colony of “wild mulattos” goes on an anthropological mission to live with others who are unable to (or who refuse to) check off a single racial box. Among those who refuse the outside world of “Two Box,” in which one must choose one’s racial identity based on existing codes, the protagonist finds a kind of belonging, but also another kind of alienation as the motives of the “wild mulattos” become clear.
Williams’s talent is in telling a good story in which rich and alive characters unfold, revealing individual problems, desires, and flaws. Among the Wild Mulattos isn’t simply a book about biracial identity: it’s also a look into the subtleties of difference, and it masterfully charts personal landscapes with humor, empathy, and wonder.
Matthew Kirkpatrick is the author of Light Without Heat (FC2) and The Exiles (Ricochet Editions) and is an assistant professor of creative writing at Eastern Michigan University.