Guy Johnson--child of Maya Angelou--tackles the 20th-century African-American experience
December 18, 1998
By Vanessa V. Friedman
Mothering height: Writing duo Johnson and Angelou together in the late 1970s.
Roots aside, there have, until now, been relatively few epics published on the African‑American experience. In his debut novel, Standing at the Scratch Line (Random House, $24.95), Guy Johnson spins a narrative that spans the first half of this century and moves from the Louisiana bayous to the trenches of France to Harlem in its heyday. The vehicle for the cross‑border tale is LeRoi "King" Tremain, a Southern backwoods boy who is something of a cross between the scourge of God and a secular saint: He kills men the way most people peel oranges, but only (and always) according to his own strict moral code.
Expelled from his family after he murders two white deputies, King joins one of World War I's black regiments, sharpens his deadly skills in battle, and becomes famous for his utter lack of fear. After being discharged, King opens a nightclub in New York and defies the Mob; later he returns to the South, marries, and fights the Ku Klux Klan in New Orleans. Throw in some voodoo, bootlegging, real estate deals, and Mafia hits, set it against a backdrop of racism and revenge, and you get the idea. As history it's hackneyed, but as entertainment it's never less than eminently readable.