In stripped-down summary, Jim Dandy by Irvin Faust seems like prime source material for a big, noisy Eddie Murphy movie — and a potentially good one, for a change. Suave, clever, and killer-handsome, Hollis Cleveland absconds in 1936 with a suitcase full of cash belonging to Sol Winograd, kingpin of the Harlem numbers racket. Under the alias ”Jim Dandy” (a name borrowed from a stock character in a Southern minstrel show), he takes a freighter to England and settles into the London high life — till he’s mistaken for an African prince and ends up dragooned into Mussolini’s army during its brutal invasion of Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia.
In short order, Cleveland slips away from the Italian Fascists and finds himself wandering the war-torn continent — traipsing from Addis Ababa to the Belgian Congo, then into Liberia — trying like hell, wherever he goes, to keep from having his head blown off. Nonetheless, the antiheroic cynic is constantly hailed as the mystical Black Devil, ”a sepia Lawrence of Arabia” come to throw off the yoke of European colonialism. In the meantime, hit men from New York are in hot pursuit.
Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? The only problem is that the novel refuses to tell the story intelligibly. Characters behave like antic vaudeville clowns and converse in maddeningly cryptic dialogue. Lugubriously surreal fantasies, populated by everyone from Queen Victoria and Lucky Luciano to talking cobras and monkeys, substitute for drama and pointed comedy, and everything is kept on an abstract, pseudo-philosophical plane.
This is Faust’s first novel in 14 years, and as such, it’s being touted as his comeback book. If only it were that. Self-indulgent, confusing, cartoonish, and — for all of its words, words, words about racism and slavery — markedly empty of insight, Jim Dandy turns out to be the worst kind of ”literary” novel: exclusionary, smug, and mind-numbing. And the point of it all? It sure beats me. D