“Dem” Book Review

William Melvin Kelley. 1971.

When I read books, I avoid reading prologues, introductions and the blurbs on the back of the book. I prefer to dive right into the text instead of having my perspective of the book shaded by other peoples opinions and ideas. After finishing a book, I read the prologues, introductions and blurbs for a richer understanding of the text. This was a major mistake when I picked up “Dem” by William Melvin Kelly. A satircal novel on white characters from a Black author’s perspective, “Dem” is a twisted, strange ride inside the mind of Mitchell, a middle-class white man who acts like a child but demands to be treated with respect by those he deems lesser than him, in other words, everyone that is not a white male. I picked this cover art above for the review, because it accurately depicts the story. Mitchell is a child and his foolishness is constantly exposed by his wife, his Black maid Opal and the Black man who disrupts his marriage. 

In Mitchell’s mind there exist a social hierarchy and he doles out respect and assigns value based on his position as a white male sitting on top of this social pyramid. The first scene in the novel is of him throwing money at a Native American man asking for change. The only person he feels empathy and respect for throughout the novel is a sociopathic white male co-worker. Everyone else, women and all other non-whites, are simply objects to Mitchell and he interacts with them in aggressive and condescending ways. In the end, his comeuppance arrives at the hands of the people he least suspected: A Black hustler named Cooley and his scheming white wife, Tam. The lesson being that sitting on top of of a social hierarchy is nice, yet from that high position one often lacks a sense of perspective. 

Please do not read this book expecting a linear, explicable plot and complex characters because you will be thoroughly confused and disappointed. Mitchell’s ridiculous internal dialogue and the absurd actions of the characters are exaggerated for a reason: to expose the dysfunction of privilege and narcissism. 

 

 

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