To say that "Loving Day" is a book about race is like saying "Moby-Dick" is a book about whales. Indeed, the subtitle to Mat Johnson's exceptional novel could read "the whiteness of the mixed male."
That would be Warren Duffy, a not-quite-ready-for-middle-age comic book artist of Irish and African American descent. He can pass for white but identifies as black, which is never not an issue. "I am a racial optical illusion," he declares early in the novel.
The problems start at a comic book convention where Warren is placed in the "ghetto" alongside other African American artists. "The people who see me as white always will, and will think it's madness that anyone else could come to any other conclusion, holding to this falsehood regardless of learning my true identity. The people who see me as black cannot imagine how a sane, intelligent person could be so blind not to understand this, despite my pale-skinned presence."
Johnson's riff on racial identity starts as a scene, turns into an episode and morphs into a motif that never lets up. His unrelenting examination of blackness, whiteness and everything in between is handled with ruthless candor and riotous humor.
Newly divorced from his wife in Wales and recently orphaned by the passing of his father, Warren is rudderless and reeling. He returns to Philadelphia to settle his father's affairs, which include a sprawling, falling-down mansion in crime-ridden Germantown that may or may not be haunted.
Warren's early attempts to make peace with his past is torpedoed by the discovery that he has a teenage daughter named Tal, who does not take the news that she is at least 25% African American well.
"My daughter is a racist, I think. I adjust that to, My daughter is mildly racist. My daughter is casually racist, I settle on." Warren's magnanimity is a product of his desire to protect Tal. However, he treats his obligation to his daughter like a relay race: He may have come in at the last leg, but he believes that all he has to do is get her out of high school and off to college — as if parental responsibility has a finish line.
That desire is frustrated by Tal's insistence on enrolling, for her final semester, in the Mélange Center, a beleaguered school for mixed kids with an unorthodox approach to education where "Everyone is eager to share their thoughts on how others should categorize themselves."
Warren takes a dismal view of the enterprise. "Those mulattoes who look clearly black and hang black and are in the full embrace of black culture — nope, they're not here, nowhere to be found. If they were they would denounce this lot of sellouts, I know they would. I can hear them from the place they have in my consciousness."
Although the question of Warren's identity haunts him throughout the book, his forebears aren't the only ghosts. Tal insists that the house of her father's father is haunted. Warren, however, has a more rational explanation: They're crackheads.
"Sure, they were ghosts. Ghosts of who they once were. You could say that about half of Philadelphia."
Even when the novel's family strife and racial politics are at peak intensity, Johnson's comic timing is impeccable. Every page is packed with politically incorrect quips that would cause outrage in a Twitter feed but here speak the truth of a man working through several lifetimes of issues: "… when old white folks start waving the Constitution like landlords with a lease, it's trouble."
Warren's issues go at least as far back as Virginia in 1958, when Richard Loving, a white man, and his African American girlfriend, Mildred Jeter, wanted to get married. The couple moved to Washington, D.C., and eventually sued the state of Virginia, which paved the way for decriminalizing interracial marriage in America. This event is celebrated at the Mélange Center as "Loving Day," the buildup to which serves as the novel's politically charged climax:
"'We've got black boys being used for target practice by white cops out there, we've got a prison system overflowing with victims of white judgment,' Warren's ex-girlfriend cries. 'We have a crisis. Right now. Not in the eighteenth century, not in the civil rights era, but right now.'"
While it's tempting to call Johnson's novel timely or even prescient, he clearly longs for a time when it can be called historical. Sadly, we're not even close. Until we are able to have the kind of frank and open conversations about race that are commonplace in "Loving Day" but rare in the real world, the myth of a post-racial society will remain a comic book fantasy.
Ruland is the author of "Forest of Fortune."
Spiegel & Grau: 304 pp., $26