Blog about William Melvin Kelley’s satire Dem (book acquired 12 Aug. 2020)

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I managed to snag a cheap used copy of William Melvin Kelley’s fourth novel Dem (or, more properly, dem) yesterday. I usually just snap a pic when I do these book acquired posts, but the cover for this 1969 Collier mass-market, by Leo and Diane Dillon, was simply too good not to scan.

I read not-quite-half of dem today, and the Dillons’ cover captures Kelley’s hypercolor satire of white upper-middle-class America: the infantalized businessman, attended by a black domestic, his bored wife not-quite-off-scene; and hey—look in that mirror.

I’ll admit that the book was hard to break into for the first few moments, until a wild moment around page 20 or so, that I’m still waiting on the novel to deliver upon (or, as it seems at this point, to depart from entirely). Kelley’s style in dem is choppier, sharper, more cartoonish than his Faulknerian debut A Different Drummer and if dem skews towards absurd irony where Drummer was heroic-tragic, both novels are rooted in intense anger tempered by strange empathy.

As its subheading attests, dem is, like Drummer, a take on white people viewing black people, and over a half-century after its publication, many of the tropes Kelley employs here still ring painfully true. His “hero,” Mitchell Pierce is a lazy advertising executive, bored with his wife, a misogynist who occasionally longs to return to the “wars in Asia.” He’s also deeply, profoundly racist; structurally racist; the kind of racist who does not think of his racism as racism. At the same time, Kelley seems to extend little parcels of sympathy to Pierce, even as he reveals the dude to be a piece of shit, as if to say, What else could he end up being in this system but a piece of shit?

The novel I’m most interested in reading by Kelley is his last, 1970’s Dunfords Travels Everywheres, long out of print and hard (read: expensive on the internet) to find. It is, apparently, his most postmodern novel, his most polyglossic, and, if the stuff I’ve read on it is accurate, it represents his most profound satirical break/engagement with reality. Fortunately, it’s getting a reprint this fall. Looking forward to it.

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