Book Review : Thomas Mullen - Lightning Men (2017)
It's a bizarre time to write a novel about racism that isn't rooted in the myriad of contemporary problems we have. There is such a thing as a history of racism, but it's not as far in the rear view mirror as we might've thought. In fact, it gained a considerable amount of ground in this short but disastrous American presidency. So, not everybody can write fiction about racism without coming off like an opportunistic prick. Award-winning historical fiction author Thomas Mullen's novel Darktown won me over a couple months ago by its rich and nuanced depiction of mid-century Georgia, so I was expecting the world out of its sequel Lightning Men, which came out last week.
And it did NOT disappoint me.
Lightning Men features the same three protagonist as Darktown: Denny Rakestraw (who is a white cop), Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith (who are black cops). It also introduces another important character named Jeremiah, who's just been released from jail. Set in a rapidly evolving Atlanta which allowed its black citizens to move into predominantly white neighborhoods, Lightning Men is shedding light on a time in American history where everybody needed to reassess their values. The progressive post-WWII ideas are met with resistance from conservative interests, including the KKK (pre-war) and the Nazi brownshirts (post-war). Our three protagonists are each put in a position conflicting with their ideas, leading them to their own, less life-affirming reassessment.
So, what makes Lightning Men interesting and (more important) different than Darktown is that Rakestraw, Boggs and Smith are ideologically compromised. Rakestraw is trying to keep his racist brother-in-law out of jail for his sister's sake, Boggs is confronted by a black man living on the other side of the thin blue line and Smith (who always at stakes with everyone) is put in a mediator role after his own brother-in-law is attacked by white supremacists. All three have a clear stance against racism, but circumstances are forcing them to act against their values, whether it's for family's sake or for personal interest. Not only that makes Lightning Men different from Darktown, but it asks the right questions : are your ideas strong enough to affect real life? Are you strong enough make the world a better place using them?
The mystery of Lightning Men may be a little more straightforward. It's not as unpredictable and conspiracy heavy as Darktown's. That mix of unflinching historical accuracy and over-the-top storytelling is what made its predecessor's appeal. Lightning Men is more of a cerebral treat. What it lacks in storytelling command, it makes up for in philosophical insight and character development that oddly mirrors some of the events happening right now in American. So, it's a novel meant to be enjoyed differently. There's a visceral charge that comes with Lightning Men that simply wasn't in Darktown. Reading this novel without asking yourself the same questions than its protagonists and taking a moral stance on its narrative would be missing the point. It's not as self-evident as its predecessor. Some people will love it, some people will hate it. I thought it was a smart way to make a sequel.
Lightning Men couldn't have benefited from better timing. Society has been going backwards since you-know-who's been elected president and suddenly, white supremacists are a thing again. It's probably not what Thomas Mullen has in mind where he wrote it, but the exercise of going back in time to an era where you had to either defend your ideas in person or shut up about them feels rather healthy. Lightning Men asks the question: what are you ready to sacrifice for your ideas? It's a question that's been haunting every serious activists since forever and it comes back to you, the reader. I've enjoyed Lightning Men in a much different way than I did Darktown. It's a novel loaded with pertinent questions and uncomfortable ideological confrontation. Read it if you liked the first. Read it anyway if you haven't. Lightning Men is its own thing.