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Dr. King's Refrigerator: And Other Bedtime Stories

Dr. King's Refrigerator: And Other Bedtime Stories

by Charles Johnson

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Charles Johnson's innovative and richly imagined collection is full of stories -- sly, witty, and insightful -- that bring the world into focus. Each is a vivid cultural and philosophical portrait that deftly explores issues of identity and race. "Kwoon" follows the spiritual journey of a martial arts teacher on Chicago's South Side. "Sweet Dreams" is a Kafkaesque


Charles Johnson's innovative and richly imagined collection is full of stories -- sly, witty, and insightful -- that bring the world into focus. Each is a vivid cultural and philosophical portrait that deftly explores issues of identity and race. "Kwoon" follows the spiritual journey of a martial arts teacher on Chicago's South Side. "Sweet Dreams" is a Kafkaesque tale set in a world where dreams are taxed and a man and his dreamlife are being audited. "The Gift of the Osuo" is a fable about the dangers of getting what you wish for. In "Cultural Relativity," a young woman falls in love with the son of the president of an African nation but is forbidden to ever kiss him. The title story is an illuminating and deeply human tale about pre-Montgomery Martin Luther King Jr. and a revelation he had when he looked into his refrigerator late one night.
Provocative, engaging, and compassionate, Dr. King's Refrigerator is a superb and important collection from a major American voice.

Editorial Reviews

Steven Moore
The range of settings in this collection is impressive, from a kwoon on Chicago's South Side to a corporate boardroom in Seattle, from 17th-century Sweden and Africa to the pre-civil rights South, to a future where we pay taxes on dreams. "Art flourishes where there is a sense of adventure" is another of the book's epigraphs (from philosopher Alfred North Whitehead), and Johnson's fans should enjoy these day-trip adventures until his next novel comes along.
— The Washington Post
ZZ Packer
In his new collection, Dr. King's Refrigerator: And Other Bedtime Stories, Johnson is once again at the ready with his quirky, professorial writing style and his melange of Buddhism, Western philosophy and African magic realism.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Sages squabble, philosophers deliberate and kings dream in this collection of eight short stories by National Book Award-winner Johnson (Middle Passage, etc.). Like fairy tales for policy-minded grownups, the stories revolve around ethical and philosophical decision making. In "Executive Decisions," the head of a Seattle company ponders which of two candidates to hire for an important post. The easy favorite is a white woman, capable and personable; the other contender is a tense, watchful black man, who knows "firsthand and through research... the contributions from people of color." In the end, the narrator's decision hinges on a revelation about the role of a black woman in his own white father's past. Though wooden in conception (like many of these stories), the tale comes to life at its ambiguous ending. Johnson's longer, more carefully fleshed out stories are most effective. In "The Gift of the Osuo," the king of a 17th-century African tribe is given a magic chalk that allows him to draw anything and make it come to life. The things he draws resemble "not the Real, but the Real transfigured," and it's the magic of this vision that transforms an otherwise ordinary fable. The didactic flatness of most of the other entries-including the title story, in which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. finds inspiration in lettuce and grapefruit-isn't quite obscured by occasional bursts of inventive language and insight. Agent, Anne Borchardt. (Feb.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Most of the pieces in this collection are very short, high-concept parables that Johnson himself refers to as fairy tales or bedtime stories. In "Cultural Relativity," for instance, a young woman meets a handsome African prince whose only flaw is an inexplicable aversion to kissing. In "Sweet Dreams," an artist discovers that the government has begun taxing dreams. These short fictions depend heavily on the element of surprise and don't lend themselves to close reading. A few of the stories are more substantial, however. In the title piece, a young Martin Luther King has a revelation while preparing a midnight snack. "Executive Decision" examines affirmative action in the workplace, while "Kwoon" describes the humiliation and redemption of a young martial arts instructor. Like the quirky stories of Patricia Highsmith, these provocative tales are stylistically quite different from Johnson's better-known novels, such as the 1980 National Book Award winner Middle Passage, which usually incorporate extensive historical and philosophical research. This thin volume is recommended mainly for libraries assembling comprehensive collections of Johnson's work. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 10/15/04.]-Edward B. St. John, Loyola Law Sch. Lib., Los Angeles Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Eight previously uncollected stories, most written in the last ten years, from the author best known for his National Book Award-winning Middle Passage (1990). Fantasy appears in the title story, with a young Martin Luther King having a vision of universal plenitude and international charity while raiding the fridge for a midnight snack; in an initially charming fable about a West African king whose artistic creations bring his people prosperity but can't prevent their eventual enslavement ("The Gift of the Osuo"); and in the story of a liberal corporate executive undecided about whether to offer a plush job to a superbly qualified white woman or to a diffident, stiff-necked-but obviously deserving-black man ("Executive Decision"), a piece that has virtually no development or tension and is characterized thus in the "Publishing History" that follows its text: "Johnson thinks it's quite possibly the only published short story that dramatizes the issue of affirmative action," a sentiment either inaccurate, or meaningless, or both. Elsewhere, a coed's unfortunate romance with an African dignitary's son ("Cultural Relativity") takes a hoary Aesopian twist; a Kafkan nightmare overtakes a citizen who has underpaid a new tax levied on dreaming ("Sweet Dreams"); and a one-joke anecdote describes how an insomniac college prof finds a cure for his misery by attending a faculty meeting ("Better Than Counting Sheep"). "Kwoon" is somewhat more substantial, as Johnson enters the thoughts of its two protagonists: a young martial-arts instructor and the hard-bitten ex-merchant marine who nearly kills him during a "sparring" exercise. Yet the story has a tenuous, unsatisfying ending. Far better is "TheQueen and the Philosopher," a witty tale of the 17th-century philosopher Descartes' debilitating service to Sweden's Queen Christina, who has summoned him "to serve as her personal tutor in philosophy and mathematics." It's inventive, breezy, and not-as Johnson's fiction frequently seems-inordinately pleased with itself. A dim book not likely to improve its author's flickering critical reputation.
From the Publisher
"An ingenious psychological whodunit."

Kirkus (starred)

"In their remarkable simplicity [these stories] reach into...the African American experience with surprising freshness and the fluency of years of gathered wisdom. This book is a deeply satisfying reading adventure."

Black Issues Book Review

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Chapter One: Cultural Relativity

Not long ago a college student named Felicia Brooks felt she was the most fortunate young woman in all Seattle, and possibly in the entire world, except for one small problem.

She was deeply in love with her boyfriend, an African student who was the only son of his country's president. His name was Fortunata Maafa. In the spring of 2001, they both were graduating seniors at the University of Washington. They had been dating all year long, he was more than she could ever have hoped for, and Felicia knew all her friends thought Fortunata was catnip. In fact, she was afraid sometimes that they might steal him from her. Most of them had given up on black men entirely. Or at least they had given up on American black men. Their mantra, which Felicia had heard a thousand times, and often chanted herself, was, "All the good black men are taken, and the rest are in prison, on drugs, or unemployed, or dating white women -- or don't like girls at all." What was a sistah to do? During high school and college, Felicia and her friends despaired of ever finding Mr. Right.

But then, miraculously, she met Fortunata fall quarter at the Langston Hughes Cultural Center. He looked like a young Kwame Nkrumah, he dressed as elegantly as Michael Jordan, was gorgeous the few times she saw him in his agbada (African robe), and he fit George Bernard Shaw's definition of a gentleman being "a man who always tries to put in a little more than he takes out." Furthermore, he was rich. He could play the kora, an African stringed instrument, so beautifully you'd cry. Yet, for all that, he still had a schoolboy shyness and was frequently confused by the way Americans did things, especially by pop culture, which was so sexually frank compared to his own country that it made Fortunata squirm. All of this Felicia thought was charming as well as exciting because it meant he was her very own Galatea, and she was his Pygmalion, his guide and interpreter on these shores. He dazzled her every day when he described the ancient culture of his father's kingdom in West Africa. There, in that remote world, his people were introducing the most sophisticated technology, and that was why Fortunata had studied computer engineering. But, he said, his people worked hard to avoid the damaging aspects of Westernization. They were determined to revolutionize their science, but also to preserve their thousand-year-old traditions, their religion, and their folkways, even when the reason for some of these unique practices had been forgotten.

One night in June after their final exams were over, Felicia played for him the movie Coming to America on the VCR in her studio apartment on Capital Hill, hoping he would enjoy it, which he did. No sooner was it over, than Fortunata slid closer to her on the sofa, and said, "I am so like Eddie Murphy in this funny movie. I came to America four years ago, not just for an education, but really to find a beautiful American woman to share my life. To be my queen. Felicia, that woman is you, if you will have me. Because if I can't have you, then I don't want anyone. I just won't marry, ever."

Naturally, Felicia said yes.

"And," he added, "you promise not to change your mind? No matter what happens?"

She did.

From the pocket of his suitcoat, Fortunata produced a ring with a flawless, four-carat diamond shaped like the Star of South Africa, for precious stones were plentiful in his country, a nation rich in natural resources. Felicia threw her arms around him. Then, without thinking, acting on what she believed was instinct, she brought her lips close to his. But before she could kiss Fortunata, he wiggled away.

"What?" said Felicia. "What's wrong?"

Fortunata gave her a shy, sideways look. His voice trembled. "I'm so sorry. We don't do that...."

What?" she said. "You don't kiss?"

She looked straight at him, he looked down. "You know I can't."

"Why not?"

"Please, don't start this again." Now Fortunata seemed nervous; he began rolling the end of his tie between his fingers. "I'm not sure why. We just don't. The reason is lost in antiquity. Felicia, it's not that unusual. Polynesians rub noses, you know. Samoans sniff each other. And traditional Japanese and Chinese cultures did not include this strange practice called kissing. I suspect they felt it was too intimate a thing for people to do. All I know is that my father warned me never to do this thing when I came to America. We've discussed this before. Don't you remember?"

Felicia did remember, but not happily. This was the one thing about Fortunata that baffled and bothered her deeply. She understood that his culture was very traditional. For example, Fortunata's people insisted that sex should be postponed until a couple's wedding night. All during the past year, they'd done almost everything else that lovers did. They held hands, hugged, and snuggled. But there were no kisses. Not even an air kiss. Or a good-night kiss when he dropped Felicia off at her apartment and returned to his dormitory. The last thing she wanted was to be culturally insensitive, or to offend Fortunata, or to have him break off their nearly perfect relationship. So on those past occasions, Felicia never insisted that he kiss her. Nor did she insist on the night he summoned up the courage to propose.

After taking a deep breath, she said, sadly, "Can we rub noses then?"

"Of course," said Fortunata. "I think that's okay."

It is well known that when two people fall in love, their brains produce an amphetaminelike substance (phenylethylamines) that is responsible for what we call "lover's high." After Fortunata left, Felicia still felt this chemically created elixir of strong emotion; but she also felt very confused. What she felt, in fact, was half ecstasy that she was to wed the son of an African statesman, and half bewilderment because rubbing noses -- in her view -- was no substitute for a big wet one. She was a highly intelligent woman. A woman about to graduate with a degree in anthropology. She wondered if she was being culturally inflexible. But Felicia knew that all her life she had been fascinated by and respectful of the differences in cultures, how each was a self-contained and complete system that must be understood from within. She knew her Levi-Strauss and the work of dozens of structural anthropologists. You did not have to tell her that in some Muslim countries, it was insulting to cross your legs when sitting if the soles of your shoes were displayed to your host. Or that in Theravada Buddhist countries like Thailand, patting a cute youngster on the top of his head was a no-no because that part of the body was looked upon as sacred. So yes, she had always taken great pains to listen carefully when Fortunata spoke of his country's history and mysterious customs.

But she wanted a kiss! Was that asking for so much?

In her heart she knew that kissing was special, and to prove it to herself, she sat down at her computer, went to the Internet, and spent the night looking at everything she could find on the subject. Just as she'd expected, kissing as an expression of love and affection was old. Very old. It dated back to the fifth century. And as a custom, it was even older than that! The early Christians borrowed kissing from the Romans. Clearly, it was the most human of practices. Everyone knew animals didn't kiss. They licked. The reason for having lips in the first place, Felicia decided just before daybreak, was so people could use their God-given soup coolers as the most romantic, the most erotic, and the most natural way to show they loved someone.

During the last year Felicia had introduced Fortunata to all kinds of things outside his culture -- karaoke, the music of Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain, the importance of Ichiro bobbleheads, and why everyone needed a good-looking tattoo -- and he had enjoyed all of it, and thanked her for enlightening him, as a good Galatea would. When she finally drifted off to sleep, around ten A.M., Felicia wondered if Fortunata had lied. That maybe people in his culture did kiss, but for some reason he simply didn't want to kiss her. But, no! She had never caught him in a lie before. It was more likely that he'd never kissed anyone. So she was certain that if Fortunata could just experience the electric thrill of kissing once, and with the right woman (meaning herself), then a wonderful new cultural doorway would open for him. If she truly loved him, Felicia knew she owed him that.

As luck would have it, Fortunata dropped by unexpectedly that evening as she was fixing dinner. He was almost bursting with excitement.

"Felicia," he said, "I just spoke with my father. I told him about our engagement. We have his blessing. In my country the wedding ceremony lasts for a week. Since my father is president, the whole country will celebrate." He paused to catch his breath. "Aren't you happy?"

To show her happiness, Felicia pressed her body against him. Before he could move, she placed her hands on both sides of his head, pulled him closer, puckered up, and bestowed upon a startled Fortunata the most soulful, moist, and meaningful lip lock she had ever delivered in her life. She felt her heart beating faster, the temperature of her skin beneath her clothes heating up. Smiling, Felicia took a step back. The expression on Fortunata's face was unreadable. He started to speak, but stopped.

And then, suddenly, he was gone.

Where Fortunata had stood there was a full-grown, giant West African frog. It was a foot long and weighed as much as a fox terrier.

"I warned you," he said.

Felicia felt ill. She thought, I can't handle this. But what she said was:

"I don't suppose we can break off the engagement, can we?"

"Don't be silly," said the frog.

Copyright © 2005 by Charles Johnson

Meet the Author

Charles Johnson is a novelist, essayist, literary scholar, philosopher, cartoonist, screenwriter, and professor emeritus at the University of Washington in Seattle. His fiction includes Dr. King’s Refrigerator, Dreamer, Faith and the Good Thing, and Middle Passage, for which he won the National Book Award. In 2002 he received the Arts and Letters Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He lives in Seattle.

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