“Dem” Book Review

William Melvin Kelley. 1971.

When I read books, I avoid reading prologues, introductions, and 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 people’s opinions and ideas. However, after finishing a book, I read the prologues, introductions, and blurbs for a richer understanding of the text. I made this mistake and picked up Dem by William Melvin Kelly. A satirical 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 respect from those he deems inferior. I picked this cover art above for the review because it accurately depicts the story. Mitchell is a child, his wife routinely exposes his foolishness, and his Black maid Opal is the primary caretaker.

In Mitchell’s mind, there exists 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 book is a sociopathic white male co-worker. Everyone else, women and other non-whites are simply objecting to Mitchell, and he interacts with them aggressively and condescendingly. Ultimately, 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 is that sitting on top of a social hierarchy is nice, yet one often lacks a sense of perspective from that high position.
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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