Warren Duffy is having a bad year. The comic book store he opened in Cardiff, Wales, has shut down, leaving him in debt to his angry ex-wife. He habris come home to Philadelphia to claim the inheritance left to him by his late father — a roofless, possibly haunted mansion that's only inhabitable in the most technical sense of the word. And he's basically broke, forced to make pocket money by drawing pictures at a comic book convention, where, because he's biracial, he's shunted into the "urban" section. (" 'Urban' is the nicest way to say" the N-word, he notes, with understandable bitterness.)
It's at the convention that he gets another shock — a teenage daughter that he never knew about. She greets him with something less than warmth: "So, I'm a black. That's just ... great. A black. That's just what I need right now." Warren is obviously displeased: "My daughter is a racist, I think. I adjust that to, My daughter is mildly racist. My daughter is casually racist, I settle on."
That's the setup for Loving Day, Mat Johnson's hilarious and touching new novel about family, identity and what it means to truly love other people. The title comes from the annual holiday observed on June 12, celebrating the day in 1967 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that state laws forbidding interracial marriage were unconstitutional. (You read that right — 1967, nearly six years after President Obama was born.)
Over the years, Warren has come to terms with his own identity; he's the son of a white father and an African-American mother. "I am a racial optical illusion," he muses, as someone who self-identifies as black. "This 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."
His newfound daughter, Tal, has a harder time adjusting to the heritage she just learned about. She moves in with Warren after running away from her grandfather's home and dropping out of high school. Warren insists she continue her education, and the two settle on a magnet school for biracial kids, located quasi-legally in a park. It's a "Mulattopia," as Warren calls it — a hippie-ish institution where students learn how not to be an "Oreo" (black on the outside, white on the inside) or a "sunflower" (yellow, or mixed, on the outside, brown on the inside).
Warren gets a job teaching art at the school, but he's still beset by other problems — he's falling in love with a woman who may or may not loathe him, his best friend is having severe marital problems, and there are two mysterious figures, either ghosts or crack addicts, haunting his decrepit mansion in northwest Philadelphia.
That's a lot of storylines for an author to juggle in one novel, but Johnson handles them all so gracefully, it's almost hard to believe. One of the chief weapons in his arsenal is humor — Johnson is one of the funniest writers in America, and even his brief descriptions of ancillary characters can be hilarious. (Upon meeting a comic book nerd at the convention, Warren observes, "He looks like he just received an official letter that says he is not a juvenilia-obsessed dork. The letter is wrong.")
Humor without feeling usually falls flat on its face, at least in literary fiction, but that's not a problem for Johnson. He's a keen observer of human nature, and every relationship in Loving Day feels true — there's no greeting-card sentimentality, no tough-guy posturing. Warren and Tal are complicated and fully realized, but so are the supporting cast: Spider, a peripatetic tattoo artist; Roslyn, the kind school principal; and Sunita, Warren's crush, "the most beautiful tall, half-black, female comic book nerd in the world."
It has become a cliché to describe a work of art as "deeply human," and fair enough. But it's tempting to call Loving Day exactly that, because Johnson gets at the heart of what it means to be a person — and he does so with more skill, generosity and, yes, love, than just about anyone else writing fiction today. "Forgiveness comes later in life, after you've created enough disasters of your own," Warren observes toward the end of the novel. The disasters make us who we are, and the results can sometimes be amazing — as amazing as this beautiful, triumphant miracle of a book.