Pretty much everything you need to know about digging into Tom Williams’s newest book is in the title: Among the Wild Mulattos and Other Tales. For me, it’s one of the best titles in recent memory, and shows readers the humor Williams brings to the topic of race before they open the book.
Don’t mistake that humor for flippancy. The book is funny, but as a result of raw honesty about the situation.
And do not mistake that raw honesty for an oppressive read. Williams does not pull his punches, but nor does he ever pile on.
Yes, every story in Among the Wild Mulattos deals with race in America, but some do so more intensely than others, some with outlandish humor and others with a darker tone, creating an ebb and flow of emotion and intensity through the book.
Williams’s collection begins with “The Story of My Novel: Three Piece Combo With Drink,” a story about a writer—a bi-racial man—who can’t sell his writing in the traditional manner, and instead queries his favorite fast food chain. The chain publishes his novel, but changes it to make it a piece of propaganda for the company. The character then embarks on a hilarious, slapstick-style tour of franchises all around the country to promote what is only sort of his book. The heightened style Williams employs here adds to the humorous farce of it all.
However, the range of this collection is revealed when one contrasts “The Story of My Novel” with “Ethnic Studies,” a story about four men of different racial minorities recruited to stand in front of a college class and be, essentially, humiliated by the professors and their students’ ignorant questions. The professors, in a misguided and self-righteous attempt to broaden their students’ horizons, eventually become the butt of the jokes when the men brought into the class take control of the conversation.
“Ethnic Studies” is a funny story, especially at the end when the men parody their own stereotypes, which only makes the sheltered students more uncomfortable. But the style is more terse than many of the other stories, and the indignities the characters suffer are more brutal and overt. But, in the end, the humor is what Williams uses to balance things out, to restore a sense of justice to the story.
In constructing such a collection, Williams achieves a deft balance of poignancy, clarity, and humor. His work reminded me of a quote by Vonnegut:
“Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward.”
It would be natural and justified to write a tearful book about the frustrating and exhausting situation of race in contemporary America, but to write one with laughter is its own accomplishment, perhaps a more difficult one. And, the clean up from this reading experience is pretty easy.
Among the Wild Mulattos and Other Tales is available here.