Charles Johnson's "Dreamer," a historical novel set in the last two years of Martin Luther King Jr.'s life that taps as one of its themes the duality of good and evil, is restrained, poetic and earnest. In short, it's a very nicely written book -- which is part of its problem. For a novel that tries so hard to show us an intimate angle on one of the most charismatic leaders of our time -- part of the story is told from King's point of view, imagining for us the conflicted feelings that bedeviled him during certain events of his life and career, including the Chicago riots of 1966 -- "Dreamer" is, for the most part, surprisingly remote.
Johnson's main character here, a sincere young civil rights worker named Matthew Bishop, from whose point of view most of the story is told, is realistic and believable enough, and he's certainly likable. He's just not particularly memorable. He's a shadowy character who comments on the action from behind a dense curtain but who doesn't show us much of himself. One of the book's other central characters, a mysterious, untrustworthy man named Chaym Smith, whose striking resemblance to King earns him a job as the leader's stand-in (it's Bishop's job to train and look after him), is more deftly wrought. When he first appears, it's hard to know what to make of him, and the bits and pieces Johnson drops about his character are intriguing enough: He's embittered and angry, he may or may not have killed his wife, he shows a talent for drawing and painting, he's a junkie, he's spent time in a Buddhist monastery and his intentions toward King, of whom he's clearly jealous, seem anything but honorable. Eventually, though, a shattering event causes Smith to undergo a spiritual transformation, and, as spiritual transformations in books so often do, it makes him nothing so much as boring.
Johnson -- whose novel "Middle Passage" won the 1990 National Book Award -- is a gifted prose stylist. In the most striking passage in "Dreamer," he describes how King, as a young man, watched as a schoolmate on whom he had a crush became seized by the Holy Spirit one day in church. The sight of the girl writhing on the floor is troubling and arousing to King at once, and Johnson skillfully paints the scene as a backdrop for one of the central struggles of King's life: "He watched her wide-eyed, squeezing his hands together, as she kicked the air and tore loose her clothing, as unconscious of her nakedness as someone in one of the ancient, pre-Christian mystery cults. For months she'd ignored him. She'd been haughty, distant, in control. Now she writhed on the floor like a worm ... Her light cotton dress rose above her brown thighs, giving him an eyeful of what he'd fantasized about all summer long before the girl's mother shoved her garments down ... Biting down hard on his knuckles, he felt burning shame shot through with the wound of desire."
But mostly, Johnson concentrates on the good brother/bad brother dichotomy between Smith and King, including a detailed rumination on the story of Cain and Abel just in case the point isn't clear. By the end, the term-paper-like compare/contrast exercise between the two men has become tiresome, and not even Johnson's sensitive account of King's death that closes the book has the emotional impact it should. "Dreamer" is carefully researched and obviously lovingly written. It has plenty of heart -- it's just lacking the muscle and bone necessary to stand up to its subject.