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Authors: John A. Williams

The Man Who Cried I Am

BOOK: The Man Who Cried I Am
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The Man Who Cried I Am

“This is an intensely American book.… At the same time, the book soars past American boundaries … a writer who cries, with humor, and anger, pride and passion,
I am

J. F
The New York Times Book Review

The Man Who Cried I Am
book, like
man. It is a blockbuster, a hydrogen bomb, by far the greatest book, the most compelling book, ever written about
The Scene
. Williams is the only man, writer or layman, black or white, who knows the inside of the scene, the other side. This is a book white people are not ready to read yet, neither are most black people who read. But is
milestone produced since
Native Son
. Besides which, and where I should have begun, it is a damn beautifully written book.”


“Make no mistake about it. Williams is a solid, vigorous, professional writer, of whom one has every reason to expect fine things.”


“A forceful, penetrating story of commitment and disillusionment … a powerful novel in which a dying Negro writer and intellectual tries to come to terms with himself and this country.”

The New York Times

“His novelistic skills are formidable.”

The New York Times Book Review

“That excellent writer John A. Williams has turned his novelist's eye on the racial situation in the United States … Absorbing and disturbing … a book to keep you reading into the midnight hours.”

The Chicago Tribune

“John Williams's novel is very powerful … obviously in the Baldwin and Ellison class … magnificent.”


“An angry, raw, deeply perceptive novel about blacks and whites, man and woman, power and humaneness. Its climax is a fascinating combination of morality play and chiller.”


“Williams is such a disciplined writer that the elements of sensation do not overshadow what is fundamentally an inventive and well-structured literary work.… An articulate writer who dares to think the unthinkable.”

San Francisco Chronicle

“Williams is a fine writer, a powerful writer, and he has a story to tell of an American Negro, driven from within to write against terrific odds. He places this Negro writer amidst a situation of international intrigue, and the story that emerges is forceful yet heartbreaking.”
Houston Chronicle

“A bold, sweeping, tough, and eminently provocative book—automatically places John A. Williams in the rank of American novelists who count.”

San Francisco Examiner

“Williams is a sledgehammer writer, having the skill and wisdom to present finely chiseled characters, and making James Baldwin's novels look as tame as apple pie.”

Chicago Sun-Times

“It would be an injustice to John A. Williams to call him an outstanding Negro writer. He is simply one of the better novelists around.”

The Miami Herald

“Its insights are considerable; its power cannot be gainsaid; its humanity everywhere abounds; its anger and its pain are its triumph.”

Cleveland Plain Dealer

“A big, overpowering book, written with as much sadness as bitterness … it is impossible not to be moved by Mr. Williams's tormented hero.”

—Daily Telegraph

“A monumentally large novel … A solid and disturbing picture of a whole man, a convincing hero.”

—New Statesman

“A seething, angry book that is more than a fine novel.… an important document of its time … a major book whose large theme is handled with superb skill and disciplined fury. It is certainly the best novel I have read this year.”

Library Journal

“John A. Williams is a first-rate talent of unquestionable authenticity, and the peer of any man writing today.… Here we have as delicate and perceptive a study of the loneliness of the writer as has ever been written.”

Saturday Review

“The merits of John Williams's novel go far beyond the degree to which different men may find its conclusion plausible.”

—Kansas City Star

“Probably the best novel written about the 1960s … John A. Williams is probably the best African-American writer of the century.” —I

The Man Who Cried I Am

A Novel

John A. Williams

Introduction by Walter Mosley

New York


The phrase “it's a classic” is much abused. Still there may be some appeal in the slant of the cap Overlook sets in publishing a list of books the editors at Overlook feel have continuing value, books usually dropped by other publishers because of “the realities of the marketplace.” Overlook's Tusk Ivories aim to give these books a new life, recognizing that tastes, even in the area of so-called classics, are often time-bound and variable. The wheel comes around. Tusk Ivories begin with the hope that modest printings together with caring booksellers and reviewers will re-establish the books' presence and engender new interest.

As, almost certainly, American publishing has not been generous in offering readers books from the rest of the world, for the most part, Tusk Ivories will more than just a little represent fiction from European, Asian, and Latin American sources, but there will be of course some “lost” books from our own shores, too, books we think deserve new recognition and, with it, readers.

To Lori



The Man Who Cried I Am
shouts into the void for all of us. He (whether you call him Max Reddick or Harry Ames or any other brother or sister in the streets of Los Angeles, New York, or Timbuktu) calls out from a great distance. His voice blending in with the wind, the street noise, the sounds of passionate love-making coming in through the walls. The cries are unmistakable but their meaning is hard to decipher. Is it a warning? Is it the blues? Has this man had enough and just needs to scream to let off steam?

We know that it's important what this man is saying. We can tell that by the timbre of his cries but it could mean so many things. Black people have been hollering out in pain for centuries, fighting for freedom, dying in slavery, belittled by little men, and denied by kings and history. Sometimes these black folk have just laid down and died. But mostly they have survived with deformed psyches and distorted notions of the world. Sometimes evil has begotten evil and the one-time slave has slaughtered and even cannibalized his oppressor.

The Man Who Cried I Am
called out in English and French and Dutch language. He forgot his own tongue and so found his words ill-fitted to the task at hand – though still eloquent. But even here his mastery of the master's tongue called down taunts and barbs though most people who listened only concerned themselves with the music and not the words.

John A. Williams's magnum opus earned him international acclaim when it was first published in 1967. There's little wonder why. This novel breaks down the barrier between the epic poetry of the pre-literate world and the modern-day novel; it combines history with high literature and then adds popular fiction because it is a book for everyone, all of us lost in the machinations of a world gone awry.

I suppose that one could compare this book with other modern masterpieces like
Invisible Man
Native Son
. It certainly stands up to those books with its deep understanding of mid-century America and the racism and imperialism that presses her, even now, into the twenty-first century. Williams understands the politics and exclusions, the crushed spirits and incredible survivals of that world and of the black men and women (and the white men and women) who lived through it. But to contrast Williams with Ellison and Wright would be to call him a
writer; as if race had anything to do with his genius.

I could on the other hand try to put Mr. Williams's work side by side with Mann or Malraux or Joyce. The romanticism and existentialism and artistic sense would certainly fit the depth of the work. But here I would have you believing that this novel is merely a work of contemporary literature when indeed it is so much more than that.

To understand the profound nature of this book we should start with the father of the tradition—Homer. This novel is certainly an
and an
. The battlefield is a race war exacted upon an entire continent and every representative of that continent everywhere in the world. And the journey home is more dangerous than Odysseus could ever imagine. The heroes here are not warriors but poets trying to describe the world so that they can restore the fabric of truth that has blown ragged with the passage of centuries.

We know from the first page that Max's battle is lost. We know from the beginning that Home has been burned to the ground and that love, though ever-present, shall never keep its own company. Williams's epic is also a tragedy without even the benefit of the final scenes. Instead characters fade away while no one is looking. Death occurring as naturally as it does in real life.

Like the Greek bard Williams treats us to long lists of the materials in his world. But we aren't presented with the oxen and arrows and swords of the ancient Greeks. Williams gives us the insults and limitations, the self-prohibitions and self-hatreds of the ex-slave. The packs of cigarettes, bottles of whiskey, acres of sex, and the myriad forms of ever-present violence visited upon women and men who walk through the world as if it were a sleeping prison waiting to rise up and close in.

There are dozens of women who come near to our protagonist. They all have beauty and power and they are all unable to help Max escape the pain of his life. Rather than a woman waiting for him at the end of the journey there are women waiting for him everywhere; waiting—but our Odysseus, Max, is always, always a day late.

In these pages we experience World War II in its less heroic moments, anti-Semitism, homophobia, racism (inside and out), Jim Crow, Europe, the fiction writer's life, the political life, the journalist's life, and the faith of fools.

In a brilliantly detailed thumbnail sketch we are shown how two ham hocks and a sack of beans can keep a man going for a week or more.

There are three races present in Max Reddick's world: whites, Negroes, and Jews. Between them there are all manners of misinterpretation and distrust. But no one can be defined solely by race. There are black traitors, Jewish princes (and princesses), and white guys who live and let live.

The Man Who Cried I Am
were a painting it would be done by Brueghel or Bosch. The madness and the dance is a never ending display of humanity trying to creep past inevitable Fate.

The novel begins in the sixties with a man who is dying of cancer. Max Reddick has traveled to Europe to say his final good-byes to his friend and rival Harry Ames, who has died quite recently. There is no future here. Max travels from Amsterdam to Leiden in real time while in his mind he drifts back to the forties in New York and then the war in Italy. He remembers his days among black people in Africa and Paris and the deep south. The events of the book transpire in less than three days but we get a whole lifetime therein. And not just the life of an interesting, if damaged, genius but also a world of change unknown to those Americans used to celebrating the United States' mid-century battle for freedom against the communists and the fascists.

BOOK: The Man Who Cried I Am
7.22Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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