Books: The double life of Martin Luther King

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by Charles Johnson Canongate pounds 14.99

How best to bring historical subjects to life? Biography, the purest way, strives for accuracy and authenticity but is often weighed down by these too-earnest goals. With "faction" - the interweaving of fact and fiction - it is easier to engage the reader with the subject, but there is a risk that the "real" person can get lost amid a variety of novelised conceits. Which brings us to , the new novel by National Book Award-winning author Charles Johnson. While tells us much about its subject, the American Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King, it is, essentially, the story of the fictional Matthew Bishop, a nondescript co-worker for King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

It is through Bishop that the turbulent story of the Civil Rights movement in the days leading up to King's assassination is told. And Bishop is the kind of man behind all such historical campaigns. He is a pens-in- the-top-pocket, honest-to-goodness worker bee. He seeks not fame or fortune, but fights tirelessly for the cause and expects little in return (if the changing of a nation's consciousness can be described as little).

But transcends being merely an "I was there while history was being made" account by throwing an intriguing "What if?" into the plot. Early on in this novel, Bishop introduces King to a down-and-out, orphaned black man by the name of Chaym Smith. Smith is the embodiment of all King has been fighting for: a truly impoverished man who was born with little chance and less hope. And yet, on the surface at least, the men are twins; in fact when Bishop first shows the minister Smith's driver's licence, King can only exclaim: "This could be me!"

At first reluctant to take Smith on board, King soon realises just how helpful this identical-yet- antithetical twin could be in his struggle to beat burn-out. And so Chaym Smith is brought in to act as a "mark" for King when a decoy is needed or the engagements, awards and public functions become too much. The responsibility of looking after Smith is handed to Bishop and his co-worker Amy and it is at this point - as the trio travel to their downstate Michigan farmhouse hideout - that the complex philosophical ideas behind come to the fore.

As Bishop sits behind the car's wheel, Smith reveals his own philosophy, which, like his upbringing and background, is as far from Martin Luther King's as it is possible to be. "You work real hard at being good," he tells Bishop. "But you don't fit. You got to remember that nobody on earth likes Negroes. Not even Negroes. We're outcasts. And outcasts can't never create a community. We're despised worldwide. You ever thought we might be second-class citizens because generally we are second-rate? See, if you check that Bible of yours, you'll find the world didn't begin with love. It kicked off with killing and righteous hatred and ressentiment. Envy, I'm saying, is the Negro disease. We got the stain, the mark. Nothing else really explains our situation, far as I see."

It is in this conflict of ideologies that truly succeeds. For even though King and Smith represent two sides of the coin, there are mirrors and reflections of each other that the author subtly slips in between the plot. (Later in the novel we are reminded of a speech that King delivered to the Holt Street Baptist Church in 1958, after which he was accused of airing "dirty laundry" in public; and in this speech, King's views were not a million miles away from those of his Doppelganger.) leads us, inexorably and fatefully, to April 4, 1968 and the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. And while, along the way, we may be wondering if, and hoping it will be Smith not King that steps out on to that balcony, we know, deep down, that that would be one novelistic trick too many. We know, as surely as Doctor King himself, who had just told his followers: "It really doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. Like anybody I would like to have a long life. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. And I may not get there with you. But I want you to know that we as a people will get to the Promised Land." Amen.