The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket is a meandering tale of seafaring set in the first half of the 19th century and full of bizarre inaccuracies and plot twists. But Chris Jaynes, an English professor at an upstate New York college and a mulatto frequently mistaken for a “garden-variety white guy,” believes the book offers a unique window into “the primal American subconscious,” specifically its “pathology of Whiteness.” Which is why Jaynes sees nothing wrong with making Pym a part (the only part, in fact) of his syllabi on African-American literature. The college where Jaynes works begs to differ, and as Johnson’s novel opens, Jaynes is newly unemployed.
This proves convenient because Jaynes shortly finds himself in possession of a box of bones that once belonged to Pym’s companion at sea, a black man named Dirk Peters. Determined to bury Peters’s bones on Tsalal, the tropical Antarctic island where Pym and company were outwitted by the darkest of savages, Jaynes assembles an all-black crew to sail south with him. There is his best friend, Garth, who lives on saturated fats and moves “like a dump truck on a highway”; his cousin Booker Jaynes, a civil rights activist turned deep-sea diver with long silver dreadlocks; a gay married couple who fancy themselves daredevils; and an ex-girlfriend for whom Jaynes has pined for seven years—along with her brand-new husband. The group sets up camp in the cold continent only to collide with a tribe of albino beasts. Excited at the prospect of naming rights and intellectual property, they follow the creatures into their caves, into the very heart of Whiteness.
The topic of slavery repeatedly makes subversive and sometimes hilarious appearances. Booker’s dog, for example, is named “White Folks.” Says Jaynes: “My cousin loved calling his name in anger.” Johnson’s Pym is unpredictable and wide open to interpretation. Is Jaynes’s journey about reconciling his mixed heritage in a world where even “one drop” of African blood makes you a “Negro”? Perhaps. In a story as entertaining and intriguing as Pym, it hardly seems to matter.