Show Me the Way to Go Home
Toni Morrison’s tale of siblings searching for solace has character but lacks resolution
Review by Sam Adams
I’d rather take painting classes from Rachael Ray than read books promoted through a daytime talk show. That’s why there was a time when I wanted nothing to do with Toni Morrison. She was inextricably tied to Oprah—being selected more times by Oprah's Book Club than any other author—and Oprah seemed inextricably tied to tame, inspirational blather. I cringed at the sight of books with nondescript titles like Paradise, marred by Oprah-approved golden stamps.
I finally got around to reading Morrison's Sula and, of course, realized that my preconceptions were off. Oprah is, for the most part, decent at picking books. With her penchant for displaying graphic, racially charged brutality, Morrison is the exact opposite of tame, and she's one of the most poetically imaginative writers I've encountered. Her lyrical and haunting novels—often imbued with magical realism—beg comparison to Ishmael Reed, whose self-proclaimed “neo-hoodoo” style explores the African-American artistic diaspora, from slavery to modern day.
Like pretty much everything else she's written, Morrison's most recent novel is a work of historical fiction deeply ingrained in social injustices. Home’s story revolves around brother and sister Frank and Ycidra (aka "Cee") Money, who grew up in the destitute shantytown of Lotus, Ga. It was a place where, as Frank says in one of the book's many internal monologues, "There was no goal other than breathing, nothing to win and, save for somebody else's quiet death, nothing to survive or worth surviving for."
We are introduced to the young siblings as they spy on a group of beautiful horses. "They rose up like men. We saw them. Like men they stood," go Morrison's opening lines. I can't quite tell if that's good poetry or a bad Hemingway parody. Either way, a tragedy ensues, and Frank and Cee's innocence is smothered.
Cut to Frank years later, doped up on morphine in a lunatic ward following the Korean War. After breaking loose, he sets out on a journey to rescue his ailing younger sister, whom he and time have left behind. But Frank has demons that infest his soul. His PTSD manifests itself in the form of color-blindness, memory-triggered fear and brutal outbursts of rage that give him a perverse satisfaction. We grow to know him as a battered, weary, boozy traveler with love and violence deeply seated in his heart—a character strikingly similar to William Kennedy's Ironweed protagonist Francis Phelan.
But for all its color, Home has a glaring problem: It's criminally brief. Characters like Frank aren't given room to breathe within the book's large-fonted, 145-page confines. Morrison goes Faulknerian as a cast of relatives and friends with their own quirks and vivid personal histories arise like flowers out of the muck. It's not that they aren't interesting. But with the attention that Morrison bestows on each of them, a novella simply doesn't provide the space necessary to tie their ends together. This results in hurried, trite metaphors that attempt to bring closure to a story that could probably use another one- or two-hundred pages.
The central ideas that “home is where the heart is” and that beauty grows out of decay are, quite frankly, heavy-handed and accomplish nothing new. And Frank and Cee's codependent relationship is summed up with Nicholas Sparks-esque contrivances. "She was a shadow for most of my life,” says one such line, “a presence marking its own absence, or maybe mine."
Morrison does excel in a few areas. Despite her characters' separation and lack of resolution, they are an enchanting lot. And the author's gift for rich and unsettling imagery is not lost. One stomach-turning episode comes in the form a child grasping a rotten orange in a Korean jungle as she forages for food. Possibly brainwashed into sex work, she then grabs a man's crotch and says "yum-yum" before he blows her head off with a rifle. As a brief passage alone, it's shocking. But Morrison's ability to weave it into the underpinnings of a character, and examine and expound upon it throughout the book, shows the transient nature of a man's morality. It’s emblematic of the deep understanding of humanity she's exhibited throughout her career.
Still, outside of those few components of brilliance, Home is pretty much on par with what the pre-Sula-reading me would have expected. It reads like a condensed, less imaginative version of Morrison’s other works. And at $24 for such a slim tome, it does feel a bit like you’re shelling out for an “as seen on TV” product.
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