From the very first line of Mat Johnson’s new novel, Loving Day, you understand that you are in the hands of a master storyteller. In engaging, lively prose, Johnson gives us the story of Warren Duffy, a man just returned from Wales to the Germantown district of Philadelphia after his father’s death.
Warren’s father has left him a house. Warren’s recent divorce has left him both a broken heart and a broken wallet. He will sell his father’s house, Warren thinks, and use the money to pay back his ex-wife the money he owes her.
Warren’s resolution to sell the house, however, is tested by its complete state of disrepair—the house has no roof, just “buckling floors” and “cracks in in all the walls, the evidence of a foundation crumbling bene ath.” Unlike his father—who made a career of buying run-down properties, fixing them up, and selling them for profit, Warren is a comic book artist. Overwhelmed, Warren understands that he cannot put this house together by himself; it would take an army.
This is when Warren decides he is “going to burn the [f—ker] down” for the insurance money.
Johnson’s trademark wit is on full display in Loving Day. “Comic books are a shameful thing,” Johnson has Warren declare early on, because they are “visual masturbation for boys with manhood issues, and men with boyhood issues.” There is a self-deprecatory aspect to his humor here as well, given that Johnson is the author of two graphic novels. This meta self-reflexivity is seen, of course, in the figure of Warren himself. As Johnson declared of his own heritage in a recent BuzzFeed article, Warren is biracial, with straight hair and “skin drained of melanin by three centuries of miscegenation with a final erasure courtesy of my father’s Irish seed.”
Warren, Johnson’s avatar, navigates us through the biracial experience in America: dark enough to be on the receiving end of racism from whites, but light enough to be mistaken for white, constantly having to defend his blackness. This is why, when the other biracial attendee at a comic book convention Warren attends—a woman whom Warren coincidentally finds strikingly attractive—asks him about his experience as a biracial artist, Warren angrily shuts her down, fearing that to do otherwise will get his “black card” revoked. “There is no such thing as ‘biracial’ in Black America,” Warren snaps, “there’s black, and there’s white. That’s it.”
But it is the later meeting with a teenage girl named Tal that turns Warren’s world upside down. Tal is the offspring of Warren’s own first teenage attempts at sex; the daughter he never knew he had. And after Tal runs away from her grandfather’s house to move in with Warren, Warren becomes a sudden father.
Tal, who didn’t even know she was black until meeting Warren, is “casually racist” against black people, and Warren is determined to immerse Tal in her black identity. The public schools are terrible and Tal refuses the other option: the Afrocentric charter school. But then they stumble upon Mélange, a new, avant-garde private school dedicated to empowering biracial youth in their dual racial lineage. Tal desperately begs to enroll; if Warren teaches art class there, the school will reduce Tal’s fee to a price he can actually afford.
So Warren and Tal head back to school together. And who is a member of the faculty? None other than Warren’s mysterious woman from the comic book convention whose name, Warren now learns, is Sunita. As a combination of the “manic pixie dream girl” and “cool girl” archetypes, Warren is convinced that Sunita will save him from himself. But Sunita is just as messed up as he is.
Even after his divorce, Warren is still the kind of man who still thinks the meaning of life will be found in the next woman he falls in love with, who, of course, will save him. It just so happens that in this case the woman who does the saving is Warren’s daughter, Tal, not another girlfriend.
Johnson can get away with playing with these tropes—in fact, can get away with anything—because of his brilliant self-awareness, both as an author and that which he invests in his characters. Johnson never falls short in his analysis of idea, in his construction of the intricacies of character. “I wasn’t going to grow up to be strong,” Johnson has Warren tell us, reflecting upon his childhood. “I was going to be a weak man who could do something horrible, unspeakable, shameful, and just vanish.” But, of course, Warren did not vanish; he is here, in his hometown, taking care of his father’s legacy, being a friend to his friends and doing his best to raise the daughter he never knew he had. He is incredibly strong.
In Warren we see the man, whose failure to grow up caused the failure of his marriage, learn how to build a home and raise a family. But as the love affair between Warren and Sunita deepens, as Tal grows closer to her black identity and to her father, Mélange begins to resemble, more and more, a strange cult. What follows, as the novel spirals into a climatic fever pitch on the titular Loving Day, is something only Mat Johnson could imagine.
In Loving Day, Johnson has crafted flawed, messy human characters about whom you cannot help but care deeply. Warren’s highly entertaining journey to self-acceptance brings with it a refreshingly honest and inventive look at our country’s obsession with race. It is a timely work, full of deep, necessary truths couched in Johnson’s intelligent humor. Here is an exploration of not just what it means to own a multiethnic identity in America, but what it means to be father and daughter; to be family.
Hope Wabuke is a Southern California-based writer and a contributing editor at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.