Happy Monday, Story366! Me and the fam are back from Kansas City, a wonderful weekend in the books. We love Kansas City. Every time we go—this was our third weekend trip since moving to Missouri—we have a great time, find completely new things to do, and drive away with talk about how we could live there, given the opportunity. I’m not paid by the KC Chamber of Commerce to write this, though I’m sounding like it. I want to start listing all the great things we did, turning the early part of today’s post into one of those montage commercials for a not-so-faraway city that air on TV. In short, if you get a chance to spend a few days in Cowtown (a nickname I just found on Wikipedia), do.
After two nights of writing Story366 posts from a Hilton Garden Inn, I’m back at the Story366 workstation, sitting in my usual chair, with the usual cushion, my cat giving me his usual hard time, wanting scratches so bad he’ll stretch out on the keyboard to keep me from typing. Home. While I caught up on his behind-the-ear treatment, I read a couple of stories from Tom Williams’ collection Among the Wild Mulattos, out from Texas Review Press. I’ve known Tom for some years now, mostly from hanging out at AWP, but also keeping track of his work (including his novel Don’t Start Me Talkin’, put out by Curbside Splendor, the press who put out my last two books), and just knowing he’s one of the nicest, most sincere people I’ve met in the creative writing world. Glad to finally get to Tom’s book, so here we go.
I liked both stories I read tonight from Among the Wild Mulattos, both of which involved men out on missions to find something. In “The Joseph Conrad Hotel,” a features writer is commissioned for a thousand-word piece on the Joseph Conrad Hotel and is given five years and a whole lot of money to do it. It seems like an easy job, easy paycheck, only there’s a serious snag, turning the piece into a Borges-esque mystery. In “Among the Wild Mulattos,” an anthropologist is on a mission of a different kind, out to find a lost civilization, to study it, and so much more.
The story begins with our unnamed protagonist—who identifies as a mulatto, it should be noted—receiving a letter from his uncle, telling him that if he moved away, dressed a certain way, wore his hair a certain way, he could pass for white. This sketchy advice comes from a sketchy source, the uncle never overly pleased that the protagonist’s dad, a black man, getting involved with his white niece. While the uncle doesn’t inspire in general, one part of his story does spark something professional: The uncle, on a hunting expedition along the Mississippi in Arkansas, got lost for a couple of days and almost died, but was saved by a boy from a hidden/lost tribe of people, a civilization of “wild mulattos.” As an anthropologist, and a mulatto, our protagonist heads off to find this civilization for himself, hoping to study them and write a book, but also for more personal reasons.
There’s hints of all kinds of old-time adventure stories going on here, with nods to Edgar Rice Burroughs, Henry Morgan Stanley, H. Rider Haggard, and Joseph Conrad (Williams, I’m guessing, likes Joseph Conrad). There’s also obvious hints at the absurd—rural Arkansas is remote, but could a guy with full hunting gear get lost so easily?—especially how mulattos are referred to. There’s strong satire going on here, mulattos discussed more as mythological figures than real people, almost like they’re the Fountain of Youth. Williams is playing with his own identity here, speaking to how someone can be a part of two different cultures, but not be accepted by either, causing isolation in a Ellison-type way. It’s an interesting theme, especially how Williams employs it, with this tongue-in-cheek nod to his reader.
The protagonist journeys deep into the Arkansas wilderness and soon finds his lost civilization and is welcomed in as a guest. The village—dubbed Two Box for the fact its residents check two boxes on racial identity forms—comes off as a mix between Atlantis and something Amish. Despite being hidden from the wild, the mulattos are a fairly modern and civilized people and even send workers into Memphis every day to make money, sell crops, and invest their earnings. One strict law is that they bring nothing back from the city, from the outside world; the residents, for example, don’t know what basketball is, and when the protagonist speaks of it, tries to explain the rules, the village elders punish him. The mulattos also have a ceremony that resembles a rumspringa, and sometimes, people leave and never come back. The protagonist observes all of this with enthusiasm—it’s an anthropologist’s jackpot—but as you might guess, he soon feels as if these people are his people and Two Box might be where he belongs, especially when Teena, the most beautiful woman he’s every met, takes a liking to him.
It’s best to keep in mind that we’re not talking about a real ethnic minority here, and even though Tom treats them like some peculiar, unheard of people, it’s all an ongoing joke. “Among the Wild Mulattos” is about identity, first and foremost, but also becomes a love story, the protagonist’s interest in Teena starting out as physical, then transforming into something more, something that changes him and guides him. It’s a long story—over thirty pages—so Williams has a lot of space to develop his character, his setting, his ideas. By the end, our hero certainly amasses enough information to write a whole array of articles and books, but at this point, academic fame isn’t exactly his motivation.
I really like this story, “Among the Wild Mulattos,” as well as the book it titles. Tom Williams has a lot of range, exhibited in the two stories I read, though both protagonists need to embark on journeys of self discovery for the stories to play out. I want to read more stories from this book, to see what else this author has up his sleeve, as I’m expecting it won’t be what I’m expecting.