flapped paperback

The Man Who Cried I Am

John A. Williams

Foreword by Ishmael Reed, with an introduction by Merve Emre

Published 24 April 2024
Fitzcarraldo Classic No. 4 | French paperback with flaps, 528 pages




It was a late afternoon in the middle of May and Max Reddick was sitting in an outdoor cafe on the Leidseplein toying with a Pernod. The factories and shops were closing and traffic streamed from Leidsestraat onto the Plein. There were many bicycle riders. Through eyes that had been half glazed over for several days with alcohol, Librium and morphine, Max looked appreciatively at the female cyclists. The men were so average. He quickly dismissed them. The girls were something else again, big-legged and big-buttocked. (Very much like African women, Max thought.) They pedaled past, their chins held high, their knees promising for fractions of seconds only, a flash of white above the stockingtops and then, the view imminent, the knees rushed up and obscured all view. Once in a while Max would see a girl pedaling saucily, not caring if her knees blocked out the sights above or not. Max would think: Go, baby!
     The cafe was empty. That was a good sign. It meant that the people Max used to know in Amsterdam, the painters, writers and sculptors, the composers and song-and-dance men who were the year-round Black Peters for the Dutch, the jazzmen, were working well. They would be out later and drink Genever or beer until they became high, wanted to talk about their work or go make love. Maybe they would go up to the Kring, if they were members or honored guests, and play four-ball billiards while eating fresh herring. It was time for the fresh herring, the green herring. Max glanced at the sky. God! he thought. It was like a clear high-noon sky in New York. No night would appear here until nine, but daybreak would come galloping up at close to three in the morning. He finished his Pernod and twisted to find the waiter, raising his hand at the same time. He felt something squish as he moved, and the meaning of the feeling caught at his voice. “Ober,” he said, then more loudly, “Ober.” The waiter, clad in a red jacket, black tie and black pants looked up with a smile. This was a new face, a new American. A little older than many others, and a sick look about him at that! Painter, writer, sculptor, jazz musician, dancer...?
     Pernod,” Max said. The waiter nodded and retreated to the bar. Max felt a sharp, gouging pain and he gripped his glass tightly. Water came to his eyes and he felt sweat pop out on his forehead. “Goddamn,” he whispered. When the pain subsided, he rose and went to the men’s room inside the cafe. When he came out he noticed that the fresh Pernod was already on his table and he said “Dank U” to the waiter. That phrase he remembered, as he remembered others in French, German, Spanish, Italian, but he could barely put a sentence together in them. He sat down again, glancing at his watch. Where was she?
     She had told him in their exchange of polite letters that she had returned to the gallery. If that was so, she should be passing the café at any moment, passing with that long, springy stride, so strange because she was small and not thin, passing with her hair billowing back over her shoulders. He had seen her pass many, many times. Before. Before, when he had sat deep inside the cafe watching, and would only call to her when she was almost out of sight. “Lost your cool then, man,” he now whispered to himself. “You ba-lew it!” He always thought of the canals when he thought of her. Now they would be reflecting with aching clarity the marvelous painter’s sky. The barges and boats would be on the way in, and soon the ducks and swans would be tucking their necks in to sleep. He had to sleep soon, too; it might prolong his life. A few days more.
     Ah yes, he thought, you Dutch motherfuckers. I’ve returned. “A Dutch man o’ warre that sold us twenty negars,” John Rolfe wrote, Well, you-all, I bring myself. Free! Three hundred and forty-five years after Jamestown. Now... how’s that for the circle come full?
     He did not really care about the Dutch except that she was Dutch. She was thirty-five now, fourteen years younger than he. Would she still be as blonde? (How he had hated that robust blondeness at first after the malnourished black of Africa. The blondeness had been so much like that of the Swedish blondes, jazz freaks who lived on jazz concerts, who saw the black musicians in their staged cool postures; but how he had been attracted to it as well!) Did he love her still—billowing blonde hair; sturdy swimmer’s legs; long, sinewy stride on such a small body and all? (And all? What was all? A memory. Nineteen years old.) He supposed he did love her, transposed, a bit bleached out, in a clinical way, the way you’d discuss it in an analyst’s office. Anal, he thought, list. Shit list. Man, am I on that! But he did want to tell her he was sorry; tell her why it hadn’t worked. He was glad he was still on his feet and able to move about. If he had stayed in the hospital in New York, it would have happened, his dying, and somehow she would have learned about it. No. Stand on two feet and tell her you had her mixed up with someone who happened nineteen years ago.
     No pity. Didn’t want that. Perhaps by that time, back in New York, he would have had it, and taken to the winds to watch her and try to comfort her when she cried. She would cry. He would have—you are drunk, he told himself, signaling for another drink.
     The first time in his life he had ever had Pernod was in a bedbug-ridden flat in the East Village between Christmas and New Year’s. The East Village was just the East Side then. He had drunk it straight and had crossed the street to a party where a painter with a penchant for teenagers was displaying portraits of rhinoceroses with the words mau mau stitched between their legs. As far as Max knew, the painter was still doing rhinoceroses, marrying young girls or knocking them up and leaving them. When last heard from he was doing a trumpet solo in an Athens nightclub—“Saints”—which was the only number he knew, and the Greeks loved him because he was black, because he skipped and danced when he blew, and because he always reminded them of the spring festival when they put on blackface and roamed the streets drunk. There was no more screwing atop the hills in celebration of Oestra. Now the Greeks did it in bed, just like everybody else, nearly. Maybe Max hated that painter so much for so long, not because he was a phony, but because, when he went home that night from the East Village, he felt as though he had a steel-jacketed slug between his eyes. After some time at home, his phone had rung. It was the girl who had sent him fleeing into the streets to get drunk. But everything was all right, after that call. Pernod. What could he associate Scotch with? Bourbon? Gin? Cognac? Beer? There was always something.
     Where is she? He would hate to go to her house, but he would if he had to. Maybe he shouldn’t have come. Maybe he should have gone right back out to Orly and returned to the hospital in New York. Comfort at least. But he was here and he hadn’t been any drunker than usual when he decided to come by train. There were only three places to go after Harry Ames dropped dead—another section of Paris, New York or Amsterdam. Hell, he planned to go to Amsterdam anyway. Who was he shucking, himself, now? It really hurt to think of old Harry going like that. He should have been drunk and stroking and grinding and talking trash in some broad’s ear. He always said he wanted to go like that. 


Max Reddick, a novelist, journalist, and presidential speechwriter, has spent his career struggling against the riptide of race in America. Now terminally ill, he has nothing left to lose. An expat for many years, Max returns to Europe one last time to settle an old debt with his estranged Dutch wife, Margrit, and to attend the Paris funeral of his friend, rival, and mentor Harry Ames. Among Harry’s papers, Max uncovers explosive secret government documents outlining ‘King Alfred’, a plan to be implemented in the event of widespread racial unrest and aiming ‘to terminate, once and for all, the Minority threat to the whole of the American society’. Realizing that Harry has been assassinated, Max must risk everything to get the documents to the one man who can help. Greeted as a masterpiece when it was published in 1967, The Man Who Cried I Am stakes out a range of experience rarely seen in American fiction: from the life of a Black GI to the ferment of postcolonial Africa to an insider’s view of Washington politics in the era of segregation and the Civil Rights Movement. John A. Williams and his lost classic are overdue for rediscovery.

‘Sixty years after it was first published, this shocking novel takes us on an astonishing black global journey that is historical but feels totally alive, energized and contemporary.’
— Bernardine Evaristo, author of Girl, Woman, Other

‘[A]n idiosyncratic, rancorous compound of roman à clef, sociocultural history, bildungsroman, and international thriller complete with an apocalyptic ending that patched disquietingly into our worst nightmares of what white America ultimately had in mind for us. Imagine a chronicle with the sweep, breadth, and momentum of Honoré de Balzac’s Lost Illusions morphing plausibly into one of Eric Ambler’s darker and more acerbic spy melodramas. Only with Black people – sad, mad, and fiercely articulate – in the foreground.’
Gene Seymour, Bookforum

‘It is a blockbuster, a hydrogen bomb.... This is a book white people are not ready to read yet; neither are most black people.... But [it] is the milestone produced since Native Son. Besides which, and where I should begin, it is a damn beautifully written book.’
— Chester Himes, author of Rage in Harlem

‘Magnificent ... obviously in the Baldwin and Ellison class.’
— John Fowles, author of The Magus

‘If The Man Who Cried I Am were a painting it would be done by Brueghel or Bosch. The madness and the dance is a never-ending display of humanity trying to creep past inevitable Fate.’
— Walter Mosley, author of Devil in a Blue Dress

John Alfred Williams (1925–2015) published over twenty books in his lifetime, fiction and non-fiction, including The Angry Ones (1960), The Man Who Cried I Am (1967), The Most Native of Sons: A Biography of Richard Wright (1970), Captain Blackman (1972), and !Click Song (1982). He was the Paul Robeson Professor of English at Rutgers University and won the American Book Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2011.

Ishmael Reed is the author of more than twenty-five books, including Mumbo Jumbo, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, and most recently The Man Who Haunted Himself.

Merve Emre is director of the Shapiro Center for Creative Writing and Criticism at Wesleyan University and a contributing writer at the New Yorker.