Eddie Mars, my editor, threw this book into my lap. "This seems about your speed," he muttered, then walked on. "See what you think."
I looked at the cover -- an old tintype photo of an African-American World War I doughboy. I turned the book over. The brief blurb let me know this first novel was about "King Tremain...a dark angel of vengeance." Guy Johnson was compared to Walter Mosley, Larry McMurtry, and Mario Puzo.
Okeydokey. I read.
And I kept reading. What an astounding book. The hell with Mosley, McMurtry, and Puzo. Johnson is rubbing shoulders with Ernest Hemingway and Jim Harrison. We're talking operatic history on a grand stage, stretching from the American South circa 1916 to World War I France to Jazz Age Harlem, back to the bayou, and on to a black township in Oklahoma before ending in San Francisco.
The novel begins on Wednesday, March 15, 1916. (Every chapter starts with a date.) Leroi Bordeaux Tremain, a young black man, is poling a skiff with his uncle in a midnight bayou in Louisiana. They're hunting for white gunrunners who have invaded their turf. The scene turns very hard-boiled very quickly, with Leroi skewering a number of men with a bow and arrow. The lad is as squeamish as Clint Eastwood about such things: "As far as [Leroi] was concerned, death was a natural consequence for those who were not careful or alert. His only concern about killing whites was the heat that it might bring down on his family."
I talked on the phone with Guy Johnson, the 50-something son of poet Maya Angelou who lives in Oakland. He told me he wanted to create a character who would answer the question: Can a man kill and not be evil? The writer pointed out how violent America was during the first third of this century -- racial violence, union and antiunion murders, bloody strikes, riots.
Certainly Tremain displays this historical American capacity for violence, but he is not, I think, an evil character. After killing the gunrunners, he joins the Army to lie low and ends up on a battlefield in France. Johnson has crafted the next 40-some pages of battle as finely as Hemingway. Sharp, compact prose. Everything action and dialogue. Indeed, during our conversation, Johnson professed deep love for "Papa."
On the battlefield, Leroi finds that the black units are used as cannon fodder, so the white American officers and the Germans become a single enemy. After Leroi nearly shoots a captain, an older black soldier says, "I've been part of this man's army for over twenty years. I rode with the Rough Riders in Puerto Rico. We were still called 'buffalo soldiers' then. There's been many a time that I had my sights on a white officer and a couple times I had to go ahead and pull the trigger, but I never did it in a way that would bring dishonor on the reputation of the Negro fighting man."
Leroi's unit must perform a suicide mission and prevent the retreating Germans from blowing up a bridge. Not to wreck the drama, but after the guns go silent, Leroi is given his nickname, the King of Death. (He and his comrades also find a crate of German gold.)
After that battle, "King" Tremain engages in a "civilized" form of warfare and knuckle fights a black sergeant on Saturday, March 16, 1918. In such fights, a line is scratched in the dirt -- hence the title of the book -- and the two fighters stand on opposite sides. "At a preordained signal the fight would begin, then the line could be crossed. In gambler's rules, if one of the fighters suffered a knockdown, there was a break in the action. The man who delivered the blow returned to the scratch line and waited. The fighter who suffered the knockdown had to get up and walk back to the scratch line if he wanted to continue. If he did not...the man standing at the line was declared the winner."
Guess who wins the King fight...
The story then jumps forward two years to February 17, 1919. King is in Harlem running a club called the Rockland Palace Revue (which he bought with his German loot). With their display of gangsters and gunplay, the next 100 pages evoke the great hard-boiled saint Dashiell Hammett. King refuses to pay tribute to the white Mafia, so killers are sent to rub him out. In a wonderful set piece that would fit perfectly into Hammett's Red Harvest, Johnson has gangsters smoking cigarettes inside a limousine during a torrential downpour as a killer with a machine gun under his coat prowls a swanky Harlem restaurant searching for King. Our hero is not plugged, of course, and he ends up gunning down a half dozen mugs.
Soon afterward, King returns to Louisiana, where he ends up romancing 17-year-old Serena Baddeaux. Not that a love interest makes the book turn soft. Here King runs afoul of the local Ku Klux Klan (we learn that kyklos, the Greek word meaning "circle," is the origin of "Ku Klux Klan"), and a fair number of white sheets get blown away.
If you're familiar with my other columns, you know that excessive violence makes me worry about women readers. Not that violence is sexist, but it often excludes female readers. "Did women read the manuscript?" I asked Johnson.
He assured me they had. No one had problems with the violence.
Good. Let's get on with the story: After decimating the Klan in Louisiana, King and Serena travel to a black township in Oklahoma, a place similar to the one Toni Morrison created in Paradise. Of course, King doesn't find paradise in Oklahoma. He bucks the local authority. Bullets fly. And King and Serena end up in San Francisco, where an African American seer tells King the fates of his unborn sons and grandchildren.
Now, I've just condensed the last third of the book into a slight paragraph, but this book is epic in both the geography and history. And King is as complex as Mario Puzo's Godfather. Johnson told me that he saw King as a kind of freedom fighter, comparing him to the way a Native American might portray Geronimo. But later Johnson admits to me that he based King on his own grandfather -- a man who fought in World War I, had dangerous scrapes down South, and ended up in San Francisco during the 1930s living the life of an exotic gangster.
"Originally Standing at the Scratch Line was just back story," Johnson told me. "I was writing about King from his grandson's perspective. But somehow the character just seemed too one-dimensional. So I put that manuscript aside and told King Tremain's story as how he would see himself."
And what a great view this is. Johnson is modest in his accomplishments, but not his intentions. "I want to be a great novelist some day," he says. "Standing at the Scratch Line is like my first attempt to climb Mount Everest. I didn't get to the top, but I see the path."
I don't know about not reaching the top. Thinking of Hemingway, Guy Johnson certainly reached the peak of Kilimanjaro. To mix metaphors: If Guy Johnson ever wants to bare-knuckle fight the Great American Novel, guess who'll be standing triumphant at the scratch line?
David Bowman is the author of Let the Dog Drive and Bunny Modern.