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Identity Is At The Heart Of Brash, Essential 'Mulattos'

"Odder than two-headed calves, stranger than Uri Geller, who could bend spoons with his mind." That's how the narrator of "Who Among Us Knows the Route to Heaven?" — one of the stories in Tom Williams' collection Among the Wild Mulattos and Other Tales -- describes himself and his brother, growing up in the suburbs of Ohio in the early 1970s.

What sets them apart is their heritage. Their father is black and their mother is white, and they're not allowed to forget it. The narrator's white schoolmates admire his athleticism, but, he recalls, "when I brought to lunch fried chicken or napped in history, they chuckled quietly and nodded at each other in affirmation that their parents and the TV were right about black folk." As for his black friends: "[I]f I professed an admiration, say, for the music of Supertramp ... they aimed at me the barbs their parents had taught them: 'Tom' and 'Traitor.' "

For many Americans, the experience of being multiracial in a society obsessed with neat, arbitrary categories is a no-win situation. That's not just because of the prejudice they face, whether it comes in the form of unvarnished racism or willful ignorance. It also has a lot to do with a society that urges them to integrate, but slaps them down any time they dare express their identity in a way that seems right to them.

Identity, both racial and otherwise, is at the heart of nearly all the stories in Among the Wild Mulattos, a manic, cutting and frequently hilarious collection from Kentucky author and academic Williams. He's an uncompromising writer with a fiercely original voice, and he's created one of the most unforgettable books of the year.

Williams has a vast imagination, on display in stories like "The Finest Writers in the World Today," about a celebrity lookalike business that expands its repertoire to novelists and poets. "[P]eople manufactured a writer in their heads while reading, and that image could never be matched by the real person," Williams writes. "So that's where our lookalikes came in: they could be whoever you wanted them to be." To the agency's surprise, the business takes off, though not without some minor setbacks ("John Irving always wanted to wrestle and William Burroughs was just plain creepy").

He also questions the idea of human uniqueness in "The Most Famous Man in These United States," about "the only person who still hasn't been on TV yet," in an age when literally every adult has made an appearance on some kind of reality show. The narrator, whose friends and family find his distaste for fame inexplicable, has a peculiarly American dilemma: He's becoming famous for not wanting to be famous.

Williams is at his best when he combines his unique sense of humor with his sage insights into the concepts of identity and belonging. In "Ethnic Studies," perhaps the best story in the book, a struggling black actor in the Midwest sees a flier from a university professor calling for "ETHNIC MINORITIES AT EASE IN FRONT OF CROWDS." In need of the promised $500 fee, he signs up, not bothering to read the fine print.

When he arrives, he finds himself being herded into a classroom with three other people of color, all nearly naked, by a clueless white hippie instructor. The teacher wants his students to draw them, believing they can gain insight into their souls through their bodies. "I doubt any student here could get our skin colors correct, let alone capture our essences," the narrator reflects. "All depictions of me, I suspect, will resemble police sketches of suspected gang-bangers from Cabrini-Green."

The story cuts to the heart of what it means to be "authentic" in America today — people aren't presumed to be real until they're on display, forced to field questions from strangers who feel entitled to know the answers. It's also an excoriating satire of race in America, and the tendency of self-satisfied do-gooders to pay lip service to a cause without really caring about the people they claim to be fighting for.

It's tempting to compare Williams to other short story writers, not because his work bears their influences, but because he's part of a small group — Mary Robison, George Singleton, Percival Everett, a few others — who do exactly what they want to, and have the immense talent to back it up. Among the Wild Mulattos feels vital, essential, not only for the unexpected ways Williams talks about identity, but for his brash, gutsy writing. You could call him an author to watch, but he's really a writer we should have been watching a long time ago.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michael Schaub
Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.