THE MITT MAN by Mel Taylor [Wm Morrow & Co.]
Apr 23, 2007, 04:01
THE MITT MAN by Mel Taylor; William Morrow & Co., 1999Â Â Â Â Â Â Â
The Mitt Man is an ingenious and revealing, if flawed novel, regarding the lives of two con artists early this past century. Both men, “King Fish” and Jimmie Lamar, are Black, and their respective stories are set against the backdrop of Afro-American life in New Orleans and New York. One point the novel makes is that the differences between the two regions of the North and the South concerning conditions under which Blacks lived were mainly superficial, matters of mere style.
With considerable intellectual abilities and ambitious work ethics, but with few legitimate outlets worthy of them, King Fish and Lamar turn to non-violent crime. This was one area where a man could write his own job description and prosper according to his skill and diligence regardless of his color. They each eventually adopt the “Mitt Game” working the role of ghetto preacher as a scam and flourish thereby. Oddly enough, they're depicted as having positive impact on the communities they prey on despite themselves.
It's portrayed as inevitable due to overall sociopolitical circumstances that both men run afoul of white society's laws and end badly. Ironically they are brought down when they stand up for legitimate principles like basic civil rights and human dignity, not through their illegal activities. To me (an old white guy who witnessed and experienced some of the '60s social upheaval) Taylor's depiction of the dilemma these intelligent, ambitious, proud black men faced living before the Civil Rights movement is insightful and highly instructive; most of the points made still apply today.
The shortcomings of The Mitt Man are structural: numerous narrative blind alleys, many incidents, and even major characters crop up with little relationship to the overriding themes or key undercurrents. Fish and Jimmie, for instance, both lose the women they love due to their own bad decisions that have nothing to do with the deepest issues that drive the book. Jimmie gets caught cheating on his wife. Infidelity is a constant in his life but for no apparent reason. King Fish goes to prison for life after publicly killing a redneck who'd manhandled his wife; years later he thinks that he could have had his revenge covertly. Duh! In the final lines Taylor tries to justify the lack of continuity as one protagonist quotes the other: “Life is like some big ol' play, makin' folks laugh sometimes and sometimes makin' um cry.”
The Mitt Man also suffers from a certain amount of weak grammar and I'm not referring to the patois which Taylor uses very adroitly. Still because of the topics delved into and their basic conceptual treatment, this makes for worthwhile reading.