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Loving Day cover

There may be ghosts in the big old house Warren Duffy inherited from his father. Or maybe not—maybe the white woman and the black man he sees out on his lawn, in his stairway, and hovering outside his second-floor bathroom are just indigent, trouble-making drug addicts. "Crackheads," Duffy calls them, clinging to the shaky belief that his unwanted guests are a natural byproduct of owning a derelict mansion in Germantown, in north Philadelphia. Either way, it's clear from the get-go that whatever the earthly status of his visitors, Duffy has bigger problems on his hands.

His house, for one thing. An eighteenth-century mansion on seven acres, transformed by neglect and fire into a roofless, bottomless money pit. For another, his recently imploded marriage to an extremely talented Welsh lawyer, whom he owes lots of money he doesn't have. And for a third, the gut-punch reveal that isn't really a spoiler, since it's on the book jacket: the seventeen-year-old girl he mistakes for a fan of his comic books turns out to be his daughter.

All of this is complicated by the fact that Warren's father was Irish and his mother was African-American, bequeathing him an ambiguous racial identity that tends to default, in American terms, to "black." His daughter, Tal, has been raised by her grandparents as a white Jew. "'Look,'" Warren tells her. "'[y]ou're black. I know it comes as a bit of a shock, but trust me, it's pretty damn amazing . . . [Y]ou're not white anymore. You never were'" (p. 57). If Tal has always been in some sense black, Warren has always been in some sense her father—but neither of them has any clue what to do with that information. Fifty pages in, it's clear that Loving Day is going to tackle even bigger, scarier things than ghosts in the stairway.

Things get even more complex for Warren when Tal convinces him to enroll her for her final months of high school at the Mélange Center for Multiracial Life, a community of mixed-race people working to foster multiracial identity. Warren falls for Sunita Habersham, one of the center's founders and teachers, and before he knows it he's teaching illustration classes to cover Tal's tuition. Mélange is a shoestring operation, housed in a posse of trailers parked illegally in Philadelphia's Valley Green park. Before long they're evicted, and Warren's seven acres of deferred maintenance becomes home to a new family of mixed-race idealists gearing up to celebrate Loving Day, the anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision Loving v. Virginia, which legalized interracial marriage.

As he struggles to keep his house from falling down and his daughter from dropping out of her dubious high school, Warren also grapples with the less tangible risks of redefining himself as "mixed" rather than "black." After imbibing a bit of Mélange’s heady identity politics brew, he muses: "[t]his mixed-race stuff is heresy. It's the opposite of what I've been taught since a child: if you have any black in you, you're black—very simple, very American" (p. 84). His friend Tosha confirms that for him, losing no opportunity to call out the Mélange community for shrugging off the mantle of American blackness. "'They're not mixed,' she snaps back . . . 'I'm black. You're black. African American, Bilalian, Negro, Colored folk, blackity-black, black. Those Oreos up there, they're black too, although I'm sure they'd cry if you told them. We're all mixed with something, no one is pure. Who cares about percentages?'" (p. 112).

Tosha's hard-line stance on race identity is sometimes hard to swallow, but she's emphatic for good reason. "'How does them quitting blackness help the Trayvon Martins out there?'" she asks. "'How does it help the Michael Browns? The Renisha McBrides, and all the black women out there struggling to hold it down? How does running away from blackness not make that worse?'"(p. 239).

How, indeed. There's no easy answer to those questions. Like his ghostly visitors, Warren is in an insupportable position, trapped between white and black, kept in perpetual limbo by two worlds that alternately award and revoke privileges depending on who he's talking to and who he's supposed to be. Contemplating Mélange's trailer-park karass, he realizes, "The . . . idea of creating a tribe where I would fully belong, of changing my definition to fit me instead of the other way around, terrifies me" (p. 93). Losing your identity, your sense of who you are and how others see you, is scarier than coming face-to-face with a ghost in your falling-down mansion.

Still, there's one thing scarier than American race relations in this book, and it's right there in the title. Love is Warren Duffy's bogeyman—it's everyone's bogeyman, if we're being honest. There's nothing scarier than going unloved, unless it's falling in love with someone new and hoping for the best. Warren is the child of divorced parents, a survivor of his own collapsed marriage, and a witness to the deterioration of his friends' relationships. The mother of his only child is long dead, and was a virtual stranger to him anyway. His daughter is a stranger, too. Warren is walking wounded, a man with a gaping hole not just in his wallet but in his chest and in his life.

So maybe the ghosts (or crackheads) in his house are good role models. They are, if nothing else, a couple committed to staying together. In their most notable visitation, they're making love outside his bathroom window—a vision that Tal captures on grainy iPhone video, then posts to YouTube. The Mélange tribe interprets them as The First Couple—the original interracial partners, the Ur-couple to every other, a sacred inspiration to the Center and a blessing on Warren's home. Warren's not so sure, but as Spider, a Mélange-r who has cleared more than one identity fence, points out: “'Everyone here's already haunted by one interracial couple: their own parents. Real ghosts aren't that big a jump'” (p. 210).

Warren clings to his skepticism—The First Couple are not loving ghosts, they're annoying crackheads, and anyway, love never lasts. Grumpily studying some of Mélange's young couples, he thinks: "I decide which ones will end in divorce when this moment is years behind them . . . The ones that will say, I never truly loved you. Later, they'll realize that there was love, and it was real, and that the fact that real love can dissipate so completely is even more devastating. That love is the greatest thing we have, the best thing we get, the only thing worth waking for, and even it turns into a putrefying mess just like the bodies we're stuck in" (p. 189).

Maybe our bodies putrefy, but The First Couple suggest that our spirits may not. Are they a union preserved by an eternal love, or a dreadful partnership pinned between life and death? Are they symbols of infinite love or infinite suffering? In her recent novel The Turner House, Angela Flournoy writes about another African-American family home that plays host to a ghost (or "haint," as it's dubbed by the Turners). Talking with Belt magazine, Flournoy explains, "I wanted there to be this doubt about the haint. Is it or isn’t it real? . . . Is there such a thing as cultural memory, or is that something you can wipe the slate clean of? I’m leaning towards, no you cannot, but I don’t necessary write my fiction so I can get a thesis across. I just wanted to pose that question through the haint."

Like Flournoy, Johnson is too canny to answer the question. The author of three previous novels satirizing American race relations, Johnson has a master's touch with both the comic and the otherworldly. Pym, the novel he published before Loving Day, follows a down-on-his-luck black literature professor on a metafictional, obsessive journey to the Antarctic, in search of Edgar Allen Poe's mystical isle of purely black people. Needless to say, it doesn't go simply or well. In both books, Johnson uses the supernatural, uncanny, and unknown to point toward what's most complex, self-contradictory, and unanswerable in ourselves. He does it with a trademark light-handed style, a dry sense of humor, and a mordant awareness of just how surreal and incredible is the everyday world in which we navigate race, justice, and family.

By the end of Loving Day, Warren has somehow managed to slip free of most of his problems. He has a little money. His albatross of a house has been literally taken out of his hands, by the most dramatic means possible. And while he might not be married off with a white picket fence, he has a meaningful semblance of family and love in his life. His last vision of the First Couple is definitively undefinitive, untethering them from any interpretation at all: "I see them. I see what they are, or what they were. Just lovers. Just people" (p. 287). Elsewhere, watching his daughter get a Mélange tattoo that will mark her forever as a proudly mixed-race person, he reminds us, "Permanence comes with pain" (p. 250). That pain at least is universal, the price of being loved in any shade.

Karen Munro's writing has appeared in Strange Horizons, Crazyhorse, Redivider, and elsewhere. She has an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop and is working on a novel about strange things in the Pacific Northwest. In October she will you send you a scary story a day. You can find her at http://munrovian.tumblr.com.



Karen Munro lives and works in Portland, OR. She completed her MFA in Fiction at the Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1999. For more about her and her work, see her website.
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