Considering the incandescent power of his personality and the high drama of his later years, it is surprising that Martin Luther King Jr. has not inspired more fiction. It is a gap that Johnson, author of the National Book Award-winning Middle Passage, aims to fill with this novel, whose passages of heightened reportage alternate with scenes in which invented characters interrelate with the civil rights leader. Narrating is young Matthew Bishop, an earnest if somewhat nerdy acolyte who, one day during the terrible 1966 summer riots in Chicago, brings to King a man who looks exactly like him. He is Chaym Smith, a bitter and deeply cynical war vet who is as profoundly read in scripture and philosophy as King himself and who was once, briefly, a monk, but who seems to have given up on his life. King's followers immediately see the value in having a double for their man: he can be used as a decoy for mobs, make brief ceremonial appearances--and Smith seems eager to try it. In the end, however, although Smith is shot by a fanatic and badly injured, and although he's eventually used by the FBI for nefarious purposes apparently connected to MLK's assassination, not much is made of what could have been a fascinating plot device. And Smith remains, despite his intriguing contradictions, a shadowy creature. The strengths of Johnson's writing, and they are considerable, are best employed in showing the appalling conditions under which King struggled, his perpetual self-doubt and the ennobling quality of his vision for humanity. The meanness of the white bigots and the out-of-control hysteria of the late 1960s have seldom been better conveyed. And yet the book is ultimately unsatisfactory as a novel. The organization is haphazard, too many strings are left dangling and the assassination is almost an anticlimax. Perhaps the book would have been better cast entirely in the form in which it best succeeds: as a deeply felt, vividly realized documentary about an astounding man. (Apr.) FYI: Scribner is crashing the pub date of Dreamer to coincide with April 4, the 30th anniversary of MLK's death.
Reviewed on: 03/30/1998 Release date: 04/01/1998 Genre: Fiction