IN 1953, Richard Wright wrote the existential novel "The Outsider," about one man's search for freedom within a world of violence and alienation. It owes not a little to Albert Camus' 1942 novel of the same name, more often translated from the French as "The Stranger." Camus continued his existential explorations in his essay "The Myth of Sisyphus," postulating that suicide may well be the only sane response to the ultimate absurdity of a life without meaning.
What do Wright and Camus have to do with Walter Mosley's pornographic novel "Killing Johnny Fry"? The subtitle of this newest offering from the prolific Mosley (best known for his Easy Rawlins mysteries) is "A Sexistential Novel." The main character's search for sex is obvious, his search for the truth of our existence more of a stretch.
The narrator, Cordell Carmel, catches Jo, his longtime girlfriend, enjoying a brutal sex act with another man. Instead of confronting them, Cordell sneaks away. His first stop is the American Museum of Natural History, ostensibly to use the bathroom, but he wanders to the wolf exhibit: "Gazing at those creatures, I felt a hollowness in my chest, a feeling akin to infatuation. Their freedom exhilarated me." The prose is cumbersome, the image of stuffed wolves as free bizarre, and the moment is undercut by his erection in front of two teenage girls -- but so begins Cordell's philosophical quest. What is freedom, and what will he do to achieve it? Who is he, and what does his life mean now? Next, the grief-stricken Cordell visits an adult video store, where he buys a porno film to soothe himself. Mosley is an accomplished writer, and it cannot be coincidental that Cordell works as a French translator or that the DVD he purchases is called "The Myth of Sisypha."
This movie is at the center of the novel. The exquisite Sisypha is so sexually powerful that her costar succumbs to whatever painful deviance she hands out. And likes it. When Cordell realizes that no one is acting, that he is watching the real thing, he finds the sadism and the surrender arousing. Poor Cordell. He is so sexually challenged that he knows how to masturbate only with his right hand. Unfortunately, his right hand is badly sprained due to an earlier disagreement with a wall, and he is stuck without hope of closure. Obviously, Cordell is a man in need of some kind of liberation.
Viewing the film sets this change in motion. The 45-year-old quits his job, and suddenly he -- who for years has had sex only in the missionary position -- is an expert partner. He knows just what to do with his experienced upstairs neighbor. He's the best lover ever for a beautiful photographer half his age. He connects with a woman on the subway, the nurse in his doctor's office and the assistant to a high-powered colleague. Throughout, he continues having sex with his girlfriend, Jo, but a different kind of sex -- the kind he saw her experience with her lover, Johnny Fry. Jo welcomes his newfound aggression. Anal sex is a big part of Cordell's libidinous path to freedom. Pain, subjugation and dominance characterize most of the book's couplings: Jo is an abuse victim. The upstairs neighbor has an incestuous relationship with her brother. Lucy, the photographer, leaves Cordell, goes home and slaps her boyfriend around for his lack of passion.
The existential themes of dread, boredom and absurdity come to the fore, but only because the sex scenes become less and less interesting and less and less emotional, if more and more outrageous. Cordell's predictable and absurd meeting with the notorious Sisypha can finally be read only with boredom. The turn the novel takes at that point -- to the underground sex Olympics, where Cordell has a fistfight in the nude -- makes no sense, existentially or otherwise. The scene in which he's offered "mother's milk" as salve for his battered psyche is comic.
If only the book were better written. "A feeling of desperation entered through my shoulders," Cordell muses at one point. "I worried that this would be the last time I'd ever have with Lucy or anyone like her. I didn't want her to leave. I didn't want to return to the emptiness that had been my life." These bland declarations are supposed to be Cordell's real feelings, followed post-sex by: "After Lucy left, I decided to rein myself in. It was too much, what I was doing. Between the DVD, seeing Jo and Johnny, and Lucy (not to mention my upcoming date with Sasha), I was way off track."
Or if only the graphic sex scenes weren't interspersed with attempts at deeper philosophical meaning: "Almost real ... I was coming to reality. So far my life had been a dream, a wan thought about someone named Cordell Carmel. A brief imitation of manhood in a world that took everything from me before I knew what loss was."
The novel ends up as neither erotica nor philosophy. For it to be erotic, the reader would have to identify with the characters. For it to be philosophy, it would have to transcend cliche.
Despite the enormous success of "Native Son," Wright's "The Outsider" was not well-received in this country. His principal character, Cross Damon, was too depraved, too much the loner, to elicit a popular response. Ultimately, however, Cross has a revelation and is redeemed, finding in death the freedom he sought. "Killing Johnny Fry" begins with a man who might be any man thrown into a horrible situation. What this man will do is intriguing. What knowledge and wisdom he will gain about himself and his life on this journey makes us read on. The pages become harder to turn, though, because he does the same thing over and over again, without any growing self-awareness, until at the very end he says, "I try to tell myself that there's always time for redemption."
For this reader, time ran out a few sex acts earlier.