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From the National Book Award-winning author of Middle Passage, a fearless fictional portrait of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his pivotal moment in American history.

Set against the tensions of Civil Rights era America, Dreamer is a remarkable fictional excursion into the last two years of Martin Luther King Jr.'s life, when the political and personal pressures on this country's most preeminent moral leader were the greatest. While in Chicago for his first northern campaign ...

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Dreamer: A Novel

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From the National Book Award-winning author of Middle Passage, a fearless fictional portrait of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his pivotal moment in American history.

Set against the tensions of Civil Rights era America, Dreamer is a remarkable fictional excursion into the last two years of Martin Luther King Jr.'s life, when the political and personal pressures on this country's most preeminent moral leader were the greatest. While in Chicago for his first northern campaign against poverty and inequality, King encounters Chaym Smith, whose startling physical resemblance to King wins him the job of official stand-in. Matthew Bishop, a civil rights worker and loyal follower of King, is given the task of training the smart and deeply cynical Smith for the job. In doing so, Bishop must face the issue of what makes one man great while another man can only stand in for greatness. Provocative, heartfelt, and masterfully rendered, Charles Johnson confirms yet again that he is one of the great treasures of modern American literature.

Dr. Charles Johnson is a novelist, screenwriter, essayist, professional cartoonist and the Pollock Professor of English at the University of Washington. He is the author of more than sixteen books, including the PEN/Faulkner nominated story collection The Sorcerer's Apprentice and the novel Middle Passage, for which he won the National Book Award.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
"Reading [Johnson's] important new novel, Dreamer, you can't help being stirred up by his truth seeking and by his passion for ideas, because the ideas he is most passionate about are not heady musings on the nature of reality, but ideas to live by, ideas that would help us to become better people and to create a more compassionate world." —Dennis McFarland, The New York Times Book Review

With Dreamer, his first novel since the 1990 National Book Award-winning Middle Passage, Charles Johnson offers the first work of fiction to explore the extraordinary life of Martin Luther King Jr. Providing keen insight into the last two years of King's life while questioning the entire legacy of equality, Dreamer extends beyond the definition of historical fiction with its imaginative range and singular ambition.

"I wanted to start a dialogue," Johnson says of Dreamer, "a dialogue about what we, as a people, learned about civil rights, human rights in the wake of the life of this man." Johnson's personal vision of Reverend King is that of a philosopher, an intellectually complex man, often conflicted, who seemed to understand he was at the center of a historical journey.

Dreamer is narrated from the perspective of Matthew Bishop, one of King's devoted followers. The novel begins in Chicago at the height of the turbulent civil rights movement. Matthew introduces King to Chaym Smith, a man whose striking physical resemblance to King wins him the job of official stand-in. In the course of training Chaym to shield King from danger, Matthewcomesto realize the philosophical magnitude of the greatest civil rights leader, and the ambiguities within the movement itself, and he — and we — are irreversibly changed. What makes one man great and the other just a mirror of greatness? What does it mean to be of African descent in America? What does it take to change the face of the country forever?

From the Publisher
Dennis McFarland The New York Times Book Review It's a joy to read fiction in which there is a cultivated vision at work...the greatest victory of Dreamer is the light it shines on the life of Martin Luther King Jr.

Andy Solomon The Boston Globe With compelling profundity and power Johnson takes us to a time, one within living memory, when a "dreamer" among us saw love as our redemptive principle and strongest weapon before he "died for our collective racial sins."

Patricia Holt San Francisco Chronicle With his novelist's instinct, [Johnson] grips us immediately with a stunning doppelgänger theme.

John Marshall Seattle Weekly A deep look at the last two crisis years in the life of [King]...Johnson is an ambitious writer who is not satisfied with merely creating...passages of imagined thinking, however powerfully rendered.

Bruce Barcott The Seattle Times Masterfully rendered set piece...writing so assured and compelling...even when you already know the ending.

Mary Loudon
...a curious, fascinating, but imperfect, though undoubtedly important novel, sometimes turgid but often dazzling. Johnson is a deeply sensitive and erudite writer; his prose is rich with historical perspective, weighty with study, and profound in its compassion.
The Times (London)
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Considering the incandescent power of his personality and the high drama of his later years, it is surprising that Martin Luther King Jr. has not inspired more fiction. It is a gap that Johnson, author of the National Book Award-winning Middle Passage, aims to fill with this novel, whose passages of heightened reportage alternate with scenes in which invented characters interrelate with the civil rights leader. Narrating is young Matthew Bishop, an earnest if somewhat nerdy acolyte who, one day during the terrible 1966 summer riots in Chicago, brings to King a man who looks exactly like him. He is Chaym Smith, a bitter and deeply cynical war vet who is as profoundly read in scripture and philosophy as King himself and who was once, briefly, a monk, but who seems to have given up on his life. King's followers immediately see the value in having a double for their man: he can be used as a decoy for mobs, make brief ceremonial appearancesand Smith seems eager to try it. In the end, however, although Smith is shot by a fanatic and badly injured, and although he's eventually used by the FBI for nefarious purposes apparently connected to MLK's assassination, not much is made of what could have been a fascinating plot device. And Smith remains, despite his intriguing contradictions, a shadowy creature. The strengths of Johnson's writing, and they are considerable, are best employed in showing the appalling conditions under which King struggled, his perpetual self-doubt and the ennobling quality of his vision for humanity. The meanness of the white bigots and the out-of-control hysteria of the late 1960s have seldom been better conveyed. And yet the book is ultimately unsatisfactory as a novel. The organization is haphazard, too many strings are left dangling and the assassination is almost an anticlimax. Perhaps the book would have been better cast entirely in the form in which it best succeeds: as a deeply felt, vividly realized documentary about an astounding man. (Apr.) FYI: Scribner is crashing the pub date of Dreamer to coincide with April 4, the 30th anniversary of MLK's death.
Library Journal
Johnson, who won the 1990 National Book Award for Middle Passage (LJ 5/1/90), his novel set aboard a 19th-century slave ship, has constructed a new historical fiction whose narrator, Chaym Smith, is a dead ringer for the great Civil Rights leader. (LJ 4/1/98).
Dennis McFarland
[H]is enthusiasms are nearly always contagious. It's a joy to read fiction in which there is a cultivated vision at work. Among the accomplishments of "Dreamer" is an overarching argument that the Truth is an amalgamation, a messy mosaic full of contradictions ("Look at this! And this!"), and that the best way to get at it is to include a lot.
The New York Times Book Review
Stephanie Zacharek
Charles Johnson's Dreamer, a historical novel set in the last two years of Martin Luther King Jr.'s life that taps as one of its themes the duality of good and evil, is restrained, poetic and earnest. In short, it's a very nicely written book -- which is part of its problem. For a novel that tries so hard to show us an intimate angle on one of the most charismatic leaders of our time -- part of the story is told from King's point of view, imagining for us the conflicted feelings that bedeviled him during certain events of his life and career, including the Chicago riots of 1966 -- Dreamer is, for the most part, surprisingly remote.

Johnson's main character here, a sincere young civil rights worker named Matthew Bishop, from whose point of view most of the story is told, is realistic and believable enough, and he's certainly likable. He's just not particularly memorable. He's a shadowy character who comments on the action from behind a dense curtain but who doesn't show us much of himself. One of the book's other central characters, a mysterious, untrustworthy man named Chaym Smith, whose striking resemblance to King earns him a job as the leader's stand-in (it's Bishop's job to train and look after him), is more deftly wrought. When he first appears, it's hard to know what to make of him, and the bits and pieces Johnson drops about his character are intriguing enough: He's embittered and angry, he may or may not have killed his wife, he shows a talent for drawing and painting, he's a junkie, he's spent time in a Buddhist monastery and his intentions toward King, of whom he's clearly jealous, seem anything but honorable. Eventually, though, a shattering event causes Smith to undergo a spiritual transformation, and, as spiritual transformations in books so often do, it makes him nothing so much as boring.

Johnson -- whose novel Middle Passage won the 1990 National Book Award -- is a gifted prose stylist. In the most striking passage in Dreamer he describes how King, as a young man, watched as a schoolmate on whom he had a crush became seized by the Holy Spirit one day in church. The sight of the girl writhing on the floor is troubling and arousing to King at once, and Johnson skillfully paints the scene as a backdrop for one of the central struggles of King's life: "He watched her wide-eyed, squeezing his hands together, as she kicked the air and tore loose her clothing, as unconscious of her nakedness as someone in one of the ancient, pre-Christian mystery cults. For months she'd ignored him. She'd been haughty, distant, in control. Now she writhed on the floor like a worm ... Her light cotton dress rose above her brown thighs, giving him an eyeful of what he'd fantasized about all summer long before the girl's mother shoved her garments down ... Biting down hard on his knuckles, he felt burning shame shot through with the wound of desire."

But mostly, Johnson concentrates on the good brother/bad brother dichotomy between Smith and King, including a detailed rumination on the story of Cain and Abel just in case the point isn't clear. By the end, the term-paper-like compare/contrast exercise between the two men has become tiresome, and not even Johnson's sensitive account of King's death that closes the book has the emotional impact it should. Dreamer is carefully researched and obviously lovingly written. It has plenty of heart -- it's just lacking the muscle and bone necessary to stand up to its subject. --Salon March 25, 1998

Kirkus Reviews
A novel about Martin Luther King Jr. from the National Book Award-winning Johnson (Middle Passage, 1990, etc.), who continues with his strange combination of high-flown philosophy and down-home folksiness. Ontological antinomianism is Johnson's subject here, and he uses just that kind of heavy-duty words to impress and even bludgeon readers, who may or may not be willing to follow along in what starts out as a fairly ingenious story. The novel pairs Martin Luther King Jr. with one Chaym Smith, a double for the civil rights leader who offers himself to King as a stand-in or decoy. The odd name is, as the narrator tells us, an etymological variant of "Cain." It's ominous, and the omens are all the darker when two sinister FBI agents show up to co-opt the civil rights leader's evil twin and and what? Johnson adduces much paranoid speculation, but there is no clear resolution or anything new about King's assassination, or, indeed, about King himself. We're simply left to imagine whatever skullduggery the FBI could have been up to. Chaym just disappears, and along with him goes any semblance of purpose to all the foregoing exposition. All Chaym says explicitly before he vanishes is that they (the FBI) are blackmailing him and want "to embarrass" King in Memphis. He wasn't embarrassed; he was shot. But even if the G-men were somehow behind this, their role is never made clear, and Johnson doesn't offer the vaguest suggestion about the possible use to which the Feds could have put their coerced doppelganger. Almost as serious a defect in the book, however, is that King's character is never fully developed. We see him as suffering and conventionally saintly, hardly given any realcharacter at all except that he smokes cigarettes and prefers catfish, pigs' feet, and collard greens to lobster. Johnson's in-your-face style seems all the more annoying for having led nowhere, and for having failed to produce any coherent vision of one of the great storylines in the epic of American history. (Author tour)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780684854434
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • Publication date: 2/28/1999
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 991,231
  • Product dimensions: 5.25 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Charles Johnson, a 1998 MacArthur fellow, is the S. Wilson and Grace M. Pollock Endowed Professor of English at the University of Washington in Seattle. His fiction includes Dr. King's Refrigerator, Dreamer, and Middle Passage, for which he won the National Book Award. In 2002 he received the Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He lives in Seattle.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 5

We stayed on State Route 51 south from Carbondale, following a map Amy scrawled on the back of SCLC stationery as Smith did impersonations of the waitress Arlene and the old man in the Pit Stop. He was a remarkably talented mimic, I realized during the rest of the ride, and so scathingly funny in his interpretations that even while Amy and I laughed until tears cascaded down our cheeks, which helped me forget for a while my shame at the damage I'd done to the diner (every police car we passed made me squirm down in my seat), I was afraid to think of Smith applying his imitative skills on me. The possibility of seeing things as he did, from the oblique angle of alienation, fascinated and frightened me at the same time; he was so antithetical to King, yet in some ways I saw in Smith the distillation of the minister's message to a black student he met at Lycoming College in Pennsylvania, a young man so consumed by anger and hatred and dualism that all King could say was, "Son, the best thing you can do is try to understand yourself." Smith forced me to think on this, to turn it over and over, and inspect it from every side: My Self. Yet for all his similarities to King, his talk earlier about envy and divine rejection put me on edge — indeed, had briefly pushed me over it. My skinned knuckles were sore and I'd cut my left forearm when smashing bottles on the counter. In other words, I'd injured myself quite as much as I'd wasted the Pit Stop. And it was his — Chaym Smith's — doing. But slowly, as I saw him slip effortlessly into Arlene's physical eccentricities, I began to feel that, for all his exasperating qualities, perhaps he could stand in for King, and told him so.

"Sure, I can mark him," he said. "That's easy. Everybody's playing a role anyway, trying to act like what they're supposed to be, wearing at least one mask, probably more, and there's nothing underneath, Bishop. Just emptiness..."

The Chevelle coasted down a dusty road trenched between enormous trees that domed overhead, breaking sunlight into flecks of leaf-filtered brilliance that flickered on a road that wound past a dilapidated Methodist church and ended in front of a rough farmhouse. It seemed to spring up suddenly out of kudzu vines and broomsedge, a one-story structure erected on rocks: it floated above these huge stones like a raft, shadowed by a double-trunked oak tree in the yard. Paint on the front porch was peeling away in large strips like sunburned skin. The yard, wild with windblown weeds, was as uncultivated as a backfield full of burdocks and snakes. I cannot say I was relieved to arrive at this remote, rural destination. The heat was withering. Out there more than two miles from the highway, and possibly three to the nearest store, there were none of the distractions to rescue a man at night from the feelings and thoughts he least wanted to confront.

Or from the strangeness of Chaym Smith.

Skeptically he squinted at the dilapidated house. "Anybody living in this dump?"

"Not this summer." Amy's brow pleated. "And it's not a dump. Mama Pearl rents it out to kids over at the college. At her age she doesn't like to live so far from other people. It's furnished inside and she's never asked for more than what she needs to pay the taxes and keep her place upstate, but it's been empty since June. That church we passed up the road? Most of our family is buried in a cemetery there..."

Smith cut off the engine, and we unloaded the car, lugged boxes inside to dusty rooms with drop cloths covering the sparse, old-fashioned furnishings while Amy explained that her great-grandfather James, a preacher, framed each room and drove half the nails in the farmhouse as well as in the church just a quarter mile away.

Talking about her family was a natural, innocent enough thing to do, and she could not have known, nor I, how it would draw out even more of Smith's cynicism. Taking a deep breath, he said, "Is this gonna be a long story?"

I shot him a stare to shut him up as Amy opened stiff chintz curtains in the front room, flooding it with light. "Go on," I said. "You were saying something about your great-grandfather. What was he like?"

She was silent, looking around the room, remembering, and I was struck again by her beauty, the melic lift of her voice when Amy said she didn't know her great-grandfather all that well, but his daughter, Mama Pearl, often invoked her father as industrious and loving and quick to load his rifle if he caught the faintest trace of discrimination directed at either his kin or himself, though as a family the Griffiths seldom came into contact with whites, no more often than did, say, the Negroes who founded the town of Allensworth in California or other all-black hamlets at the turn of the century. Whites may not have liked them, but James — her grandmother told her — never asked to be liked, only respected. And that was a matter fully within their own control. They grew their own food before and after the crash that crippled the nation in '29. They operated a school for their children at the nearby church, one so successful in teaching metalwork that its graduates were considered the best smiths in the county and had work come rain or shine in the twenties.

Amy walked us through rooms of antique furniture — ladderbacked chairs, heavy oak tables, an old black walnut Jefferson bookstand fastened with mortise-and-tenon joinery — and for me it was like being gently led into the past, a distant, better time when black people were the moral fiber of a nation. She said that during her visits in the 1950s to Makanda nothing pleased her so much as how self-reliant her relatives and their neighbors seemed. There were inconveniences, of course. Water came from a well. Thirty paces from the back door was an outhouse she hated to visit in the middle of the night. But she loved seeing her kin making their own clothes and furniture and bartering with other black people in the area for the little they could not produce themselves. She remembered her great-grandfather, who, if he came across something he especially liked on his dinner plate, saved that portion of the meal for last; when he flipped through the newspaper and saw an item that interested him, he scanned everything else on that page first and held off satisfying his desire for that one particular news report until he'd made himself read everything around it. Throughout Jackson County her kin were known as the people black travelers should see if they were turned away from white hotels and needed a room for the night and a good meal the next morning. As might be expected, they had no tolerance for phoniness or pretense. They did not judge others by their possessions, dress, family pedigree, or how often they got their names in the newspaper. Family and friends came first. And they did not hesitate to share what little they had, whether it was food, labor, their home, or the skills each had developed in order to survive. She said they were known to hold on to a dollar until it hollered. (And James often discussed Negro entrepreneurs he admired, and urged his children to take as their example people like merchant Jean-Baptiste Du Sable, one of Chicago's earliest settlers, Madame Walker, Philadelphia's catering king Robert Bogle, and colored people who controlled America's service businesses before World War II, to say nothing of owning their own banks and insurance companies.) James's children, Mama Pearl and her two brothers, were never pampered. He insisted that from birth to age five his progeny be treated like princes and princesses, but after that they were to work like servants, even if what they did consisted in nothing more than fetching things for the other folks. (He suggested they sing as they worked to lighten the labor.) No, Amy said, he could not tolerate idleness, and it was not in his nature to ask anyone for anything.

As we traipsed through the old house, its floorboards creaking beneath our feet, Smith responded to Amy's family history with a contemptuous pfft! from his pursed lips, which puzzled me, because I almost felt that as Amy spoke I could hear her ancestors' day beginning with breakfast-table prayer, which did not exclude even the youngest children; they had to know chapter and verse before their twelfth birthday. There were no spirits in this household. In my mind, I saw James — a tall, dark-skinned, suspender-wearing black man — insisting that his two sons and daughter, Amy's grandmother, acquire as many skills as they had fingers on their hands, work for everything they received, and treat whatever possessions any family member had as carefully and conscientiously as if they belonged to someone else who one day might ask for their return. The family, he told them again and again, was far more than a group bonded by blood. More even than a collective that insured the survival of its members. More than anything else, according to the Griffith patriarch, it was the finest opportunity anyone would have for practicing selflessness, for giving to others day in, day out, and for this privilege, this chance to outgrow his own petty likes and dislikes, opinions and tastes, he gave abundant thanks. If they wanted to be happy, he counseled them, the first step was to make someone else happy. Through Amy's words I saw him demand that his children read after their chores were finished — what, he didn't care, but he wouldn't talk with them if two days had gone by and they'd not touched a book. (Smith was looking at his watch, frowning heavily; her story so displeased and rattled him that he entered one of the bedroom doorways at the same instant I did, and for a second we were stuck, shoulder to shoulder, our arms pinned at our sides, Chaplinesque, until I jerked free.) Eventually, she explained, the farm could not sustain itself. By the late 1950s, his sons left to find work elsewhere. Mama Pearl did the same, moving to Chicago, where she was steadily employed at Fanny's Restaurant in the suburb of Evanston, and possession of the property came to her when her mother died in 1963.

Now we were in the kitchen. Smith glowered darkly out the window, cracking his knuckles. I tried to ignore him. I said to Amy, "Your people lived like that?"


"I wish I'd known your great-grandfather." In the depths of me I did. Partly I was envious, knowing so little of my own family's past before they migrated from the South to the city; and partly I hungered for the sense of history she had, the confidence and connectedness that came from a clear lineage stretching back a century. "He sounds like a wonderful man."

"He was." Amy laughed. "Mama Pearl told me he used to say over and over, 'Life is God's gift to you; what you do with it is your gift to Him.'"

"Excuse me," growled Smith. "I need to shit."

Amy flinched, as though he'd pinched her. She pointed through the window to an outhouse about fifty feet from the back door. Smith seemed anxious to flee the farmhouse and had one foot out the door when she said, "Wait," reached into one of the boxes of SCLC materials we'd placed on the table, and brought out one of the Commitment Blanks distributed among volunteers. "I brought this along for you to sign."

I knew that form well, having signed one earlier in the year. On it were ten essential promises — like the tablets Moses hauled down from smoky Mount Sinai — the Movement asked of its followers. Seeing the form made me feel a little weak, insofar as I remembered the hundreds of times I'd failed to uphold these vows:



  1. Meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus.
  2. Remember always that the nonviolent movement seeks justice and reconciliation — not victory.
  3. Walk and Talk in the manner of love, for God is love.
  4. Pray daily to be used by God in order that all men might be free.
  5. Sacrifice personal wishes in order that all men might be free.
  6. Observe with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy.
  7. Seek to perform regular service for others and for the world.
  8. Refrain from the violence of fist, tongue, or heart.
  9. Strive to be in good spiritual and bodily health.
  10. Follow the directions of the movement and of the captain on a demonstration.

I sign this pledge, having seriously considered what I do and with the determination and will to persevere.


(Please print neatly)

He tore it from her hand and tramped outside, his action so rude — so brusque — that it startled Amy and angered me. I followed him into the backyard, clamped my fingers on the crook of his arm, and spun him round to face me.

"You want to tell me what's wrong?"

"That story she told," said Smith, "it's a fucking lie. Front to back, it was kitsch. All narratives are lies, man, an illusion. Don't you know that? As soon as you squeeze experience into a sentence — or a story — it's suspect. A lot sweeter, or uglier, than things actually were. Words are just webs. Memory is mostly imagination. If you want to be free, you best go beyond all that."

"To what?"

"That's what I'm trying to figure out. By the way" — he held up the Commitment Blank and grinned — "tell her thanks for this. I need something to wipe with."

I stood and watched him squeeze into the outhouse and shut the door. I picked up a handful of rocks and pegged them against the wall. Inside, Smith laughed. He reminded me I owed him for saving my skin in Chicago, and kept on talking through the door, railing against conformity and convention, all the while emptying his bowels loudly, with trumpeting flatulence and gurgling sounds and a stink so mephitic it made me choke, then fleeing back into the farmhouse, I found Amy looking through his bags.

Winged open in her hands was one of Smith's sketchbooks. She turned each page slowly, puzzling over verses he'd scrawled beneath a series of eight charcoal illustrations of a herdsman searching for his lost ox. Finding it. And leading it home, where — in the final panel — both hunter and hunted vanished in an empty circle. "Chaym is talented," she said as I stepped closer, looking over her shoulder, "but I can't see him helping the Movement. Look at these." She flipped through more pages, turning them carefully at the bottom edge, as if she were afraid the images might soil her fingers. But I was not seeing Smith's drawings. No. I saw only the softness of her skin, and before I knew full well what I was doing I encircled my arms round her waist and lowered my head to her shoulder in a kiss. Amy stiffened for an instant. Then I felt her relax, offering no resistance whatsoever to my embrace. She squeezed my arm gently, then stepped to one side and placed the sketchbook back on the kitchen table.

"That was sweet, Matthew, but please don't do it again."

"Why not?"

"I know you're attracted to me," she said. "I know that. And I'm flattered. I really am. It's just that I'm not right for you. Or you for me. Your sign is water — didn't you say that once? Mine is earth. Together, all we'd make is mud." She tried to laugh, to get me to laugh, as one might a child who has knocked over his water glass at the table and needs to be chastised but not crushed for his blindness. His blunder. She was not angry, only disappointed, I thought, and was doing her best to be gracious — to salvage the situation for me and herself — after the minor mess I'd created. And it was strange, I realized, how at that moment my emotions were a pastiche of pain and wonder at her civilized composure, her ability to absorb the discomfort and disorientation my desire caused her — as if she were stepping over a puddle — and at the same time transform it into something like sympathy for me, for how confused and aching I felt right then — like someone who'd fallen off a ladder, say, or stepped on a rake. Yes, that was how I felt. Gently she placed her hand on my arm, and in a voice as full of candor as it was of Galilean compassion, said, "I'm fond of you, really I am, but I'm not the right person for you." Once again she smiled, as one might when a child is being unreasonable. "Someday, if you do well, you'll find someone right for you. I need somebody a little more like the men I knew when I was growing up. Or like Dr. King. Oh, God, I hope I haven't hurt you."

Actually I couldn't say; I'd never been shot down with such finesse before. Nor had I ever felt so impoverished by desire. Just then, her words were more than I could bear.

"We can still be friends?"

I couldn't look at her, but I said, "Sure." My eyes began to burn and steam, blurring the buckled, floral-print linoleum floor as she pushed up on her toes, pressing her lips against my cheek in a chaste kiss. "I suppose we should get back to unpacking, eh?"

"You go ahead, I'll get Chaym."

More than anything else, I needed to be away from the farmhouse. And her. It was dark now. My feet carried me east, from the kitchen to an open field. Looking back at the lighted rear window of the old, warm house with its family heirlooms and positivist history as it grew smaller, I felt better being outside, stepping through humus, round moss-covered stones green as kelp, past the well where the water tasted faintly of minerals, skinks, and salamanders. The brisk walk left me panting a little, perspiring as if a spigot somewhere in my pores had switched on, pouring out toxins in a tamasic flush of sweat that soaked my shirt. Yes, it still hurt. I'd always known I was hardly the model for Paul's Epistle in Corinthians 13, but to be rebuffed because I fell so short of the minister's example was confounding. Who could measure up to that? Yet — and yet — in her refusal I also felt relief, as if the weight of want had lifted. I sat down in weeds high as my waist, the night closing round me like two cupped hands. Wondering less about the woman I'd desired than the mystery of my desire itself, how it had made me experience myself as lack and her as fulfillment, all of which were false, mere fictions of my imagination. Just beyond there were woods that looked vaporous and incorporeal in the moonlight; and I felt just as vaporous and incorporeal, as if maybe I might vanish in the enveloping, prehuman world around me. Leaves on the nearest trees trembled with tiny globes of moisture clear as glass. And then, as my eyes began to adjust, I saw numinal light haloing the head of a figure — it was Smith — kneeling amidst the trees.

His eyes were seeled, his breath flowed easily, lifting his chest at half-minute intervals and flaring the flanges of his nostrils faintly with each inhalation. His exterior was still as a figure frozen in ice. Yet inside, I knew from his notebooks, he was in motion, traversing 350 passages he'd memorized from numerous spiritual traditions, allowing the words to slip through his mind like pearls on a necklace. The passages — called gatha in Buddhist monasteries — ranged from Avaita Vedanta to Thomas à Kempis, from Seng Ts'an to the devotional poetry of Saint Teresa of Avila, from the Qur'an to Egyptian hymns, from a phrase in John 14:10 to the Dhammapada; they were tools — according to jottings he'd made — selected to free him from contingency and the conditioning of others. When he focused on a gatha, the gatha was his mind for that moment, identical with it, knower and known inseparable as water and wave. He was utterly unaware of me, and his practicing the Presence, reviewing these passages like a Muslim hafiz, was so private and intimate an exercise that I felt like a voyeur and was about to pull myself away, back toward the farmhouse, when I saw tears sliding down his cheekbones to his chin.

Then his eyes were open, and he asked softly, "You like what you see, Bishop?" He wiped his cheeks with the back of his hand. "Yeah, I cry sometimes. Can't help myself. When I sit, it just comes out. I can't keep it down. At the zendo, I wasn't the only one who cried when doing zazen."

I stepped closer and sat down as he stretched out his legs from the kneeling position, massaging them vigorously to get blood moving again. "Where was that?"

"Kyoto," he said. "Two years after my discharge I was there, tossing down sake, and the fellah I was drinking with told me 'bout a Zen temple way out in the forest that accepted foreigners. 'Bout that time I was a mess, man. Drank like a fish. Hurt inside every damned day. I wanted to kill myself. Kept my service revolver right beside my pillow, just in case I worked up the courage to stick the barrel in my mouth and paint the wall behind me with brains. I went to the temple 'cause I was sick and tired of the world. I wanted a refuge, someplace where I could heal myself. I figured it was either the zendo or I was dead." Smith kept on massaging his right leg as he talked, working his way methodically from his hip downward.

"When I got there, I kneeled in front of the entrance, on the steps, and kept my head bowed until I heard the straw sandals of one of the priests coming toward me. I begged him to let me train. Naturally, he refused my request, like he was supposed to do, and then he went away. That's the script. So I sat there all day — like I was supposed to do — on my knees, my head bowed, keeping that posture and waiting. Night came, but I still didn't move. On the second day it rained. I was soaked to the skin. I damned near caught pneumonia on the second evening. But sometime during the third day the priest came back and gave me permission to enter the temple temporarily. See, he was playing a role thousands of years old same as I was playing mine. He had me wash my feet, gave me a pair of tatami sandals, put me in a special little room called tankaryo, shut the sliding paper door, and went away again, this time for five days. For five days, I didn't see nobody. They didn't bring me food. Or water. I waited, kneeling just like you seen me doing, my eyes shut, hands on my lap, palms up with my thumbs kissing my forefingers, meditating for a hundred twenty hours nonstop to prove to the priest that I could do it. I say five days, but when you're in zazen that long, there is no time. That's another illusion, Bishop. In God, or the Void — or whatever you wanna call it — past, present, and future are all rolled up in now. And the hardest thing a man can do, especially a colored man whose ass has been kicked in every corner of the world, is live completely in now. But I did. And the priest came back. He led me down a hallway with wooden floors polished so brightly by hand that they almost gleamed, then he stopped in front of a bulletin board listing the names of the monks and laymen presently training at the temple. Mine was the last, the newest one there. I tell you, buddy, when I seen that I broke down and cried like a goddamn baby. I was home. You get it? After centuries of slavery and segregation and being shat on by everybody on earth, I was home."

I did get it, and in his voice I saw the beautiful vision of a tile-roofed, forest temple encircled by trees, the grounds spotless, the gardens well tended, and here and there were statues of guardian kings. Smith began slowly massaging his left leg as he'd done his right, working from hip to heel.

"I was a good novice, I want you to know that. Every day I was up at three-thirty A.M. when the priest struck the sounding board. When I washed up I didn't waste a drop of water. I brushed my teeth using only one finger and a li'l bit of salt, and I was the first in the Hondo — the Buddha hall — for the morning recitation of sutras. After that, when we ate, I didn't drop nary a grain of rice from my eating bowl. I shaved my head every five days. Kept my robes mended. With the others, I walked single file from the temple into town, reciting sutras and collecting donations in a cloth bag suspended from a strap around my neck. Always I blessed those who gave, singing a brief sutra that all sentient beings may achieve enlightenment and liberation. But for that year I trained, I never touched money. Or thought 'bout women. Or drink. The world that hurt me so bad didn't exist no more, and I was happy. Hell, I wasn't even aware of an I. After our rounds we came back and did samu — monastic labor. Chopping firewood. Maintaining the gardens. And all this we did in silence, Bishop. Each daily task was zazen. Was holy. No matter how humble the work, it was all spiritual practice."

Smith had finished stretching. He scooted back from the spot where he'd been sitting and rested his back against a tree.

"What I'm saying is that my practice was correct. So good the Roshi promoted me to kitchen chef or tenzo. That's an honor, right? It means I'd been diligent. He put me in charge of preparing food to sustain the Sangha, and I was 'bout the only one the Old Man, the Roshi, didn't whack with his bamboo stick when time came for him to interview me 'bout my koan.

"It was great," Smith said. Then, sourly, "For a year."

"What happened? Why'd you leave?"

"Didn't want to." He laughed. "I felt like I was in Shangri-la. I coulda stayed there forever. But one year to the very day I started, one of the priests said the Roshi wanted to see me. I was in the kitchen, making a sauce to go with wheat-paste noodles. Lemme tell you, it was good. Li'l sea tangle, sesame seeds, ginger, chopped green onions, and grated radishes. I washed my hands, then hurried to the Roshi's room. I struck the umpan, the gong, to let him know I'd arrived, then entered when he called. I knelt before him, never lifting my eyes, but I wondered fiercely why he wanted to see me. Had I done wrong? No, he told me. My practice was perfect. The other monks respected me. But (he said) I was a gaijin. A foreigner. Only a Japanese could experience true enlightenment. That's what he said. He didn't want me to waste my time. He was being compassionate — see? — or thought he was. I left that night, Bishop. If anything, my year in the temple taught me what Gautama figured out when he broke away from the holy men: if you want liberation, to be free, you got to get there on your own. All the texts and teachers are just tools. If you want to be free, you're supposed to outgrow them."

"I'm sorry," I said.

"Don't feel sorry. There's no place anywhere for me. I seen that a long time ago. Wherever I go, I'm a nigger. Oh, and I been to mother Africa. Over there, where people looked like me, I didn't fit either. I don't belong to a tribe. To them I was an American, a black one, and that meant I didn't belong anywhere." He patted his pants and shirt, searching for his cigarettes. Having found the pack in his breast pocket, Smith lit one with a Zippo lighter, and blew a smoke ring my way. Then quietly he asked, "What about you? Do you feel at home — really at home — anywhere?"

"No." I thought of my blundering pass earlier in the farmhouse. "I don't. Ever..."

"Then you're damned too," Smith said. "You got the mark. That's what I seen on you. Outcasts know each other. The blessed know us too, and keep their distance, and I can't say I blame 'em. We scare 'em. We make 'em uncomfortable. We're the unwanted, the ones always passed over. Until the day we die, we're drifters. Won't no place feel right for long. And that's okay. I accept that, Hell, I embrace it. My spirit don't ever have to be still. It don't need to sleep. Fuck that. The only thing is, I don't want to be forgotten. Not by the goddamn sheep. Or God. I want to do something to make Him remember this nigger — me — for eternity."

Then Smith was quiet for a while, staring past me toward the lights of the farmhouse, and something in me quieted as well. He was a man without a home. Without a race. I pitied him and myself, for what he'd said about knowing no place on earth where he could find peace and security was something I'd often felt and feared, and perhaps that was even why I wanted — or believed I wanted — Amy. Now I feared it less, and for the first time since Chaym Smith surfaced during the Chicago riots, I understood the labyrinthal depths of his (our) suffering. Or did I? Hadn't he said all stories were lies? What, then, was I to make of the one he'd just told me? It had seduced me, but as always I didn't exactly know where truth ended and make-believe began with him.

"What will you do?" I asked. "Doc told us to help you — "

"Help me, then." He got to his feet, brushing grass off the seat of his britches. "Best thing you and the girl can do is teach me what I don't know about Dr. King." His smile gleamed in the moonlight, followed by that maddening, ticlike wink. "Do that, and I'll take care of everything else."

Copyright © 1998 by Charles Johnson

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First Chapter

From Chapter One

I knocked on his open bedroom door. "Doc?"

Rolling over, he crushed the lumpy pillow against his chest but kept his eyes closed, probably hoping whoever had come would go away, at least for a few moments more. Except for one other security person, we were alone in the apartment. His wife and children were staying at the home of Mahalia Jackson until the shooting died down. Later he would tell me he'd been dreaming of the sunset at Land's End, that breathtaking stretch of beach on Cape Comorin in the Hindu state of Kerala, which struck him as the closest thing to paradise when he and Coretta traveled to India: he dreamed an ancient village of brown-skinned people (Africa was in their ancestry) who knew their lord Vishnu by a thousand names, for He was imminent in the sky and sand, wood and stone, masquerading as Many. He'd come to India not as a celebrated civil rights leader but as a pilgrim. To learn. And though the promise of that pilgrimage was cut short when he plunged into the ongoing crisis back home, he had indeed learned much. Against the glorious sunset of Kerala, with the softest whisper of song carried on the wind from temples close by, Ahimsa paramo dharma, his wife took his hand and turned him to see the moon swell up from the sea, and in that evanescent instant, at the place where the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea, and the Bay of Bengal flowed together, he experienced an ineffable peace, and had never felt so free, and...

"Doc, I'm sorry to bother you," I said into the darkness. Though the lamps were off, burning fires outside the window pintoed his bedroom wall. "There's someone here to see you. I think you'd better take a look at him."

When he looked toward the door, toward me, I knew what he saw: a twenty-four-year-old with the large, penetrating "frog eyes" of his friend James Baldwin behind a pair of granny glasses, dehydrating and dripping sweat in brown trousers and a short-sleeved shirt weighted down by a battery of pencils and pens. I stepped into the room and walked directly to the window, looking down before I shut it on streets turned into combat zones as treacherous as any that year in Tay Ninh or Phnom Penh. The fuse: black kids cranking on fire hydrants. The flame: police trying to stop them. The consequence: a crowd that poured bricks and whiskey bottles and then ricocheting bullets from balconies and rooftops. It was not a night, July 17, to be out in bedlam unless you had to be. Firefighters dousing blazes set by roving street gangs had to be out there. Marksmen hunkered down behind their squad cars, praying that Governor Kerner would order, as promised, four thousand National Guardsmen into the city, had to be there—and so in a few short hours did the man whose sleep I had interrupted.

At the window, I could see two men shoot out the streetlight at the intersection of Sixteenth Street and South Hamlin. Their first shots missed the target; then at last one struck, plunging the corner into darkness. A sound of shattering glass came from the grocery store on Sixteenth Street. The pistol fire had been so close, just below the window, it changed air pressure inside the building, tightening my inner ear. Roving gangs were setting cars on fire. Light from the interiors of torched cars threw shadows like strokes of tar across the bedroom's furnishings. Below the window figures darted furtively through the darkness, their colors and clans indistinguishable, slaying—or trying to slay—one another. I no longer knew on which side of this slaying I belonged. Or if there was any victory, pleasure, or Promised Land that could justify the killing and destruction of the past three nights.

I looked at the watch on my wrist. The luminous numerals read 8:15, but it felt more like midnight in the soul.

"Who is it?" The minister rubbed his eyes. "Is he here for the Agenda Committee meeting? Tell him I'll be ready in just a minute—"

"No, sir. He's outside in the hallway now. Reverend, I think you need to take a look at this."

After swinging his feet to the floor, he sat hunched forward, both elbows on his knees, waiting for his head to clear. I noticed he wore no cross around his neck. Nor did he need one. With his shirt open, there in the bedroom's heat, I could see the scar tissue shaped like a rood—a permanent one—over his heart, carved into his flesh by physician Aubre D. Maynard when he removed Izola Curry's letter opener from his chest in Harlem Hospital. I knew he was tired, and I did not rush him. His staff had been working off-the-clock since the West Side went ballistic. He hadn't slept in two days. Neither had I. All this night I'd drifted in and out of nausea, finding a clear space where I briefly felt fine, then as I heard the gunfire again, sirens, the sickness returned in spasms of dizziness, leaving me weak and overheated, then chilled.

He reached toward his nightstand for the wristwatch he'd left on top of a stack of books—The Writings of Saint Paul, Maritain's Christianity and Democracy, Nietzsche's The Anti-Christ—alongside the sermon he was preparing for the coming Sunday. Typically, his sermons took two-thirds of a day to compose. In them his conclusions were never merely closures but always seemed to be fresh starting points. The best were classically formal, intentionally Pauline, cautious at the beginning like the first hesitant steps up a steep flight of stairs, then each carefully chosen refrain pushed it higher, faster, with mounting intensity, toward a crescendo that fused antique form and African rhythms, Old Testament imagery and America's most cherished democratic ideals—principles dating back to the Magna Carta—into a shimmering creation, a synthesis so beautiful in the way his words alchemized the air in churches and cathedrals it could convert the wolf of Gubbio. He was, I realized again, a philosopher, which was something easy to forget (even for him) in a breathless year that began with the January murder of student Sammy Younge in Alabama, seventeen-year-old Jerome Huey beaten to death in Cicero in May, Fred Hubbard shot in April, Ben Chester White (Mississippi) and Clarence Triggs (Louisiana) killed by the Klan in June and July, the Georgia legislature's refusal to seat Julian Bond in February because of his opposition to the Vietnam War, Kwame Nkrumah deposed as Ghana's leader the same month, then the slaughter of eight Chicago student nurses by a madman named Richard Speck. Not until I saw the books by his bed did I recall that in a less tumultuous time he taught Greek thought to a class of Morehouse students, among them Julian Bond, who testified that King, a freshly minted Ph.D., often looked up from his notes, closed his copy of Plato's collected dialogues, and brought whole cloth out of his head passages from Socrates' apology, emphasizing the seventy-one-year-old sage's reply to his executioners, "I would never submit wrongly to any authority through fear of death, but would refuse even at the cost of my life."

Copyright © 1998 by Charles Johnson

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Interviews & Essays

On April 22nd, the barnesandnoble.com Live Events Auditorium welcomed Charles Johnson, who joined us to discuss DREAMER, his first novel since his National Book Award-winning MIDDLE PASSAGE.

Moderator: Welcome to barnesandnoble.com, Charles Johnson. We are pleased you can join us this evening to discuss DREAMER!

Charles Johnson: Thank you. It's a privilege to be here.

Marion Edwards from Chicago, IL: Much has been made of late about nonfiction books that blur the edges of fact. DREAMER is the reverse of that -- a novel in which reality is constantly present. Yet I wouldn't call DREAMER a historical novel. Why did you decide to write DREAMER in the form of a novel rather than a biography?

Charles Johnson: We can read history books and learn facts. But the advantage that a novelist has is that he or she can plunge us emotionally into a moment of history by using the historical record as the basis for the story and allowing his imagination and emotions to fill in the gaps.

Arthur from Newtown, PA: How much research did you need to do for DREAMER? What were your main sources for certain details and mannerisms of MLK -- newsreels, speeches, journals, interviews?

Charles Johnson: I spent two years reading biographies and histories of Dr. King before I started writing in 1993. I looked at documentary film footage over and over again about the Chicago Freedom Movement. I read magnificent works of history by Stephen Oates, David L. Lewis, Lerone Bennett; I read Coretta King's book on her life with Martin Luther King. And both volumes of the papers of Martin Luther King, which contain every scrap of paper that he wrote from his teenage years through his education at Boston University. I also studied his sermons, his speeches, and sources about the civil rights movement.

Jerzy from Michigan: Do you personally believe any of the conspiracy theories surrounding Martin Luther King Jr.'s death? Does your novel make any allusions to these theories? What do you think about King's son's appeal for James Earl Ray's freedom?

Charles Johnson: I don't ascribe to any particularly conspiracy theory, but in the very last chapter of DREAMER I record as thoroughly as I possibly can the inconsistencies and ambiguities surrounding the circumstances of his assassination. I personally think that many important questions have been left unanswered. And I believe the King family is justified in wanting to see any unclear aspects of Dr. King's murder cleared up.

Jain from Long Island: Were MLK's family members consulted for this book? Have they read DREAMER? Do you know what their response to DREAMER is?

Charles Johnson: My agent was contacted by the agent who represents the King family a few years ago to see if I would write a book about where the members of the King family are today. It was to be a quickie book, which I had to respectfully decline doing because I was working on DREAMER. But I did not consult any members of the King family as I wrote DREAMER. I don't know if any of them have read it yet. But if they do, I hope they will see it as a respectful homage to Dr. King.

Soraya from New Haven, CT: Mr. Johnson, I loved DREAMER. What was especially striking was the package and cover. Throughout reading the book, an eye from Reverend King's face watched me, making me feel as if I was constantly being observed. It often gave me pause as I read. Was this overlap of MLK's portrait from the front jacket intentional?

Charles Johnson: That's interesting. Just tonight a lady in a bookstore in Madison, Connecticut, pointed out to me that as she read the book, she felt King was watching her because the eye flaps over on the cover. I hadn't noticed that myself until tonight. I don't know if it was intentional on the part of the book's designer, but I agree with you that it must intensify the reading experience.

Matt from Trenton, NJ: Throughout DREAMER, you hint at King's demise. Do you think King himself knew he wasn't long for this world, that his life wasn't his own anymore?

Charles Johnson: I think Dr. King did know that his days were numbered. Toward the end of his life, he gave his wife a bouquet of plastic flowers and told her he wanted her to have something she could keep. He lived with a $30,000 bounty on his head and received as many as 40 death threats some days. I imagine he knew that his life would be short-lived because he told his wife after JFK was shot, "That's what's going to happen to me."

Aloysius from New York City: Have you ever met the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.?

Charles Johnson: Unfortunately, I did not have that privilege.

Steven from Home: Good evening, Charles Johnson. The information on this site about your book mentions that this is the first fictional account of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s life. Why do you think that is, and do you think that you have opened the door for more novelists to explore the life of this fascinating man? Have you ever thought about writing a novel about what would have happened if Dr. King had lived?

Charles Johnson: I came of age during the Black Power Movement, as did most middle-aged black writers today. In the late '60s and early '70s our attention was focused more on the legacy of Malcolm X than on the legacy of Dr. King. However, I should point out that we have no fictional portraits in novels or short stories about Malcolm X either. I wrote about Dr. King because I felt I had not fully appreciated or understood him deeply enough during his lifetime, and I wanted to explore his legacy 30 years after his death. I don't think I'll write another novel about Dr, King, but I do anticipate continuing to study his life and legacy and letting that legacy influence my short fiction and essays.

Ria from Bradenton, FL: I sometimes got so frustrated reading DREAMER with Matthew Bishop because I felt he was so powerless and passive as a narrator. Did you base his character on someone? Why did you use him as a narrator?

Charles Johnson: I chose Matthew to narrate DREAMER because he respects Dr. King so highly yet feels at times incapable of achieving the idealistic goals that King set before us. Matthew is struggling with a crisis of faith in his own life, and so Dr. King is inspirational to him and serves as a teacher; the double Chaym Smith also serves as his teacher, but in a slightly different way. As Matthew narrates the story, he undergoes his own spiritual odyssey. He is a kind of everyman, and in many ways at the end of the novel the legacy of Dr. King falls upon his shoulders and those of the woman he loves, Amy Griffith, as they move into the future beyond the day of King's assassination.

Dave from St. Louis, MO: Will there be a film version of DREAMER?

Charles Johnson: It's a little early to say, since the novel was just published on April 4th. I think it might be a little difficult to turn this book into a movie, but I'm willing to entertain any offers.

Samer from Mooresville, NC: There's a line that Matthew thinks to himself when he's out with Amy that has stuck in my mind: that African American women blame every black man for the burdens and suffering other black men have caused them. Do you think that's a true statement about African American relationships -- that they are almost hopeless from the beginning, like Amy and Matthew?

Charles Johnson: I think many young black men and women find themselves in the awkward position of Matthew and Amy, trying to overcome centuries of discrimination and oppression that effect even the personal lives of black people. What I like about Matthew and Amy's relationship is that they find a way to connect despite all those obstacles placed in their way.

Mark from New York City: Having a distrust for historical fiction for as long as I can remember, but as a literature lover always welcome to attempts at swaying my opinion, I wonder if you can shed some light on the merits of the genre? How do you outrun accusations of revisionism?

Charles Johnson: I've never seen myself as a writer of historical fiction. Instead I've always seen myself as a writer of philosophical fiction. However, the last three stories that I wanted to tell in my previous three novels all demanded that I situate them in the past. This was not something I chose to do, it was something demanded by the story itself. One virtue of setting a story in the past is that we have both emotional and aesthetic distance from those events and perhaps can see them with greater clarity. In regard to the problem of revisionism, I think that all history and historical fiction involve the art of interpretation. And what is delightful about history is that we can have numerous interpretations of a single event, each one of which enriches and deepens our understanding. So I don't think that there's a single truth to a historical event, but rather multiple truths that historians and novelists deliver to us.

Darias from Knoxville, TN: In your mind, do you know where Chaym Smith disappeared to? Has he arrived in a place in your imagination?

Charles Johnson: I left the fate of Chaym open. Matthew and Amy don't know any more about what happened to him than we know what happened to Jimmy Hoffa. One of my students suggested to me that Chaym probably killed the two FBI agents and escaped. I find that idea intriguing.

Erica Beacon from Arlington, VA: The character of Chaym raises some very interesting questions. In your mind, what experiences separated Chaym from Dr. King? How did one become so respected and the other so ignored?

Charles Johnson: I think the difference between Chaym and Dr. King parallels in interesting ways the difference between Cain and Abel. Chaym is extremely talented and brilliant, perhaps even a genius, but what he lacks that Dr. King has is a profound spiritual faith and a tremendous capacity for self-sacrifice for others. I believe that is the fundamental difference between the fictional Dr. King character and Chaym Smith.

Karen Bahner from Eugene, OR: In all the biographical research you did on Dr. King, was there one fact about him that surprised you the most?

Charles Johnson: yes. I was surprised to learn that of all the philosophers he studied, the one who gave him the deepest trouble was Friedrich Nietzsche. Although when I think about it now, it seems perfectly logical that the author of THE WILL TO POWER and THE ANTICHRIST would trouble a Baptist minister's son.

Corrine from Dayton, MO: Speaking of Cain and Abel, would I get in trouble if I said that MLK and Malcolm X sort of personified that story? Do you deal with Malcolm X in DREAMER? Does the Nation of Islam play a role?

Charles Johnson: The Nation of Islam is referred to as well as Malcolm X in DREAMER, but Dr. King and specifically Chaym Smith are the principal actors on the stage of this drama.

Fern from Darien, CT: Greetings, Charles Johnson. I haven't read DREAMER yet but plan on ordering it. I would like to know what your writing schedule is like. How much time do you spend researching your novels? How much time writing? Do you write every day?

Charles Johnson: I spend roughly five to six years writing and researching a novel. I don't write every day. I tend to be a binge writer. I might write for three months straight, night and day, and them back off for a month to do more research. I tend to write at night, when it's quiet.

Shamus from Arizona: What's your opinion of President Clinton's attempts to start a dialogue on race?

Charles Johnson: I think his attempts are well intended. However, from what I've been reading about the dialogue on race, it seems like it's having a hard time getting off the ground.

Pamela from Rochester, NY: What influence did John Champlain Gardner have on your own writing?

Charles Johnson: John Gardner was my mentor and I think he was the greatest writing teacher that ever lived. Gardner looked over my shoulder while I was writing my first published novel, FAITH AND THE GOOD THING. And introduced me to the book world. He had an enormous influence on me as well as thousands of other young writers in the 1970s.

Perry Seminole from Albuquerque, NM: Do you still draw? Are you still painting? Where can we see your work?

Charles Johnson: Yes! I am determined to continue as a cartoonist. You can find new cartoons by me in Literal Latte and also in Quarterly Black Review of Books, in each of their issues.

Jenny Brady from Austin, TX: Who are your literary influences? Do you find any inspiration from any current writers?

Charles Johnson: My strongest literary influences are Jean Toomer, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, the American Transcendentalists, John Gardner, and somewhere in there I have to include Herman Hesse. I enjoy the work of numerous contemporary writers from James Alan McPherson to Joyce Carol Oates, Russell Banks, Sandra Cisneros, and more writers than I can list here.

Dorothy from Bellingham, WA: Hello, Charles Johnson. I loved MIDDLE PASSAGE and can't wait to read DREAMER. I just wondered if you feel you are still categorized as an African American writer, even after you won the National Book Award? Thank you for taking my question.

Charles Johnson: Thank you for your question. I will always be categorized as an African American writer, but what I hope is that readers can appreciate that black writing is American writing. I firmly am against pigeonholing authors, but it's true that every author brings a background to his or her writing that is indebted to their race, class, or gender. What great writers do, like Saul Bellow and Isaac Singer and Ralph Ellison, is to take the particulars of their background and show us the universal human condition that resides there.

Mary from Michigan: What was the first book you ever wrote?

Charles Johnson: I wrote six novels in two years -- I call them apprentice novels -- before I published my first novel, FAITH AND THE GOOD THING, in 1974.

Carley from Boston, MA: Hello. There's a lot of spiritual references outside of the Bible -- dharma is brought up a lot, as is koans and denzo. Why?

Charles Johnson: Hello. And thank you for your question. In DREAMER, Dr. King's spiritual tradition is Western and Christian; Chaym Smith's influences are largely from the East. Both of those traditions have an impact on the narrator, Matthew Bishop. In other words, he learns from both traditions and creates his own synthesis by the end of the novel.

Ben O. from Brooklyn, NY: In your opinion, how should President Clinton's words spoken in Africa about the slave trade and its evil be interpreted? Is this a good step for healing racial rifts in America?

Charles Johnson: I think that President's Clinton's apology for slavery was a good idea. I think it is, however, more important that he follow through on his goal of seeing an African Renaissance, as he put it. One in which American businesses find ways to enter into cooperative economic ventures with African economies. If this could be done, then the apology for slavery, an institution that economically developed the West at the expense of Africa, will have greater meaning.

Justine from Tulsa, OK: Cain and Abel is all over this book. Chaym is even alliteratively close to Cain. Why this biblical reference? Were you like Matthew, realizing the ubiquity of the story of Cain and Abel?

Charles Johnson: Thank you for being so astute. Cain and Abel struck me as being the perfect story from Genesis to use in this novel. The reason is because I've always seen Dr. King as being our better brother. Also, the civil rights movement is all about the relation of brothers (and sisters) across racial lines. It is a powerful, frightening, and revealing story about envy, inequality, and violence. As a subtheme in DREAMER, I think it amplifies our experience of the conflict between the races.

Moderator: Thank you very much for fielding all of our questions this evening, Mr. Johnson. We have it on good authority that tomorrow is your birthday and wish you many happy returns. Do you have any final words for our online audience this evening?

Charles Johnson: I would like to thank all the people who asked questions, and I especially want to thank those who have already read the book.

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Reading Group Guide



1. Who is the real "dreamer" in this novel? Is it Dr. King, dreaming of a world filled with equality and racial harmony? Is it Matthew Bishop, dreaming of the day he will truly become his own man, an individual who shines in his own glory rather than hides in the shadow of others? Or is it Chaym Smith, dreaming of the day he will achieve greatness like Dr. King, yet remain true to his own beliefs?

2. A major turning point for Matthew is the moment he gives in to his anger at the diner, lashing out at the waitress for her racist behavior. He is exhilarated by his response, even though it goes against everything Dr. King stands for. Discuss other events in Matthew's life that reflect Chaym's influence. Is it wrong for Matthew to behave in this manner, or is it a necessary step he must take to come to terms with his own anger and disillusionment?

3. Discuss ways in which Chaym and Matthew mirror each other. Both are smart and insightful, but while one always tries to take "the high road," the other is empowered by his refusal to accept the terms of others. Who ultimately emerges as the winner?

4. Many literary texts use the "doppelgänger" as a means to explore issues of good versus evil and nature versus nurture. How effectively does Johnson use this device to examine these and other issues? Compare his treatment to other books, such as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

5. Do you agree with Chaym's assertion that "all narratives are lies"? What does he mean when he says this? That we (individually or as a group) revise history to fit our needs, conveniently "forgetting" events that do not suit out agenda? Does the ability to revise the past make it easier to live with?

6. When Chaym is slated to make his first public appearance as Dr. King, Matthew closely watches the pulpit, unsure if the man at the podium is Chaym or Dr. King. Who did you think was making the speech as you read the novel? Is Chaym capable of giving such a speech? Discuss ways in which Chaym's fate might have changed had he, as planned, stood in for Dr. King that fateful day?

7. As Chaym dejectedly watches Dr. King accept congratulations for his rousing speech at the A.M.E. church, Matthew describes him as "undergoing a living death in the great man's presence." Doesn't this statement actually describe what Matthew himself goes through every day?

8. Chaym's emotional growth is charted by his drawings. His earlier artwork, completed before he joined the Movement, seems to focus on his own personal misery. Later, he looks outward and depicts the beauty he finds in his surroundings. What other events signal Chaym's growth?

9. Part of Matthew's job is to keep a detailed record of the Movement. Is Matthew an accurate keeper of the flame? Does his role as history's scribe make him more powerful than Smith, maybe even more powerful than Dr. King?

10. Matthew describes himself as "the insecure, callow prop in the background of someone else's story." Do you agree with his assessment? Is Matthew an observer or a participant in the making of history? Is he underestimating his importance to the Civil Rights Movement because he believes that his contributions are dwarfed by those of "great men" like Dr. King?

11. In the end, does Dr. King experience a change of heart when he questions the validity of his peaceful methods? Is this Chaym's influence shining through? Is King giving up or giving in to pressure?

12. What do you think about Chaym's ultimate decision to leave? Is he saving himself, or is he making a sacrifice for the good of Dr. King and the Movement? Was his leaving really the only possible outcome to his situation? What do you think ultimately became of Chaym?

13. What resemblances are there in the story of King and Chaym to the biblical tale of Cain and Abel? Consider the following:

There is a moment when each man discovers God. For King, it is a transforming experience that shows him the way to confront the world's evil, while Chaym's faith is short-lived, and he becomes disillusioned by the evils of the world. How does each man's relationship to God affect what happens to him?

What are Chaym's motivations in helping King? Is his offer to be a decoy a true gesture of self-sacrifice? Or does he covet King's position as a great and beloved leader?

Chaym eventually succumbs to the FBI's threats and cooperates with them out of fear, but we never learn exactly what happens to him. Do you think he betrays King? Might he be responsible for his death in some way?

Chaym is able to imitate King in all aspects except his faith in God. Does Chaym represent what King might have been without God?

14. Many famous figures who came to symbolize peace during their lives (King, Ghandi, Rabin, and even John Lennon) have been struck down by assassins' bullets. Discuss the irony of such voices of reason being silenced by the violence they loathed. Do you think Dr. King would be America's martyred symbol for Civil Rights had he not been murdered in his prime? Does his murder allow us to conduct our own kind of historical revision by letting us forget his limits as a man and leader, and focus solely on his tremendous achievements?


Charles Johnson was the first black American male since Ralph Ellison to win the National Book Award for fiction, which he received for Middle Passage. His fiction has been much anthologized, and he was named in a survey conducted by the University of Southern California as one of the ten best short-story writers in America. A widely published literary critic, philosopher, cartoonist, essayist, screenwriter, and lecturer, he is one of twelve African American authors honored in an international stamp series celebrating great writers of the twentieth century. Johnson's alma mater, Southern Illinois University, administers the Charles Johnson Award for Fiction and Poetry, a nationwide competition inaugurated in 1994 for college students. He was also awarded the MacArthur Fellowship in 1998. He is currently the S. Wilson and Grace M. Pollock Endowed Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Washington and lives in Seattle with his wife, Joan, and their two children.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 8 )
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Sort by: Showing 1 – 7 of 8 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 17, 2014

    Great Young Adult Novel

    I will be recommending this book fof our school library.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted June 24, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    The author did a great job on her book.  For her to get a 48 yea

    The author did a great job on her book.  For her to get a 48 year old guy to have my emotions moved with this book, I must say that
     I really and sincerely enjoyed it..  Towards the end, I found myself getting nervous and anxious while reading the exciting ending.  
    It took me back to my love of reading when I was in elementary and middle school.  It was funny towards the end as the main character,
    Rory, was described as a young Nancy Drew.  You see, I really enjoyed reading the Hardy Boy mystery books when I was younger -
    and Nancy Drew was another young detective that was connected to that series.  This book helped me to remember how much I
    enjoyed those books.   I highly recommend you take some time to read her book.  It was an easy read as I found it hard to put down.
    Top Notch effort!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 19, 2014

    Dreamer, as a first novel was well written. Being a former MI r

    Dreamer, as a first novel was well written. Being a former MI resident the references were fun. I DID enjoy this book even though I'm not a teen. The characters were strong yet I found random names of new characters popping up with no explanation of who they were. Also, my recommendation to this new author is to have numerous people proof read for her as I found numerous typo's. All-in-all I see lots of potential in this authors writing and will look forward to hopefully more books in her future. ... and how fun for her students to know their teacher is a published author!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 17, 2013


    "I do understand." She says, though her eyes cloud. She pads back to camp.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 11, 2013

    Hunter to coldstar


    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 8, 2013


    Do you know of a place where humans can hunt?

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 16, 2013


    I must find new territory for my new clan. She said leaving.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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