Race Matters

Returning from exile and personal calamity, author Gayl Jones has created her own outlaw-in-training: a Baptist, Bud Light-drinking, stun-gun-toting, 6-foot-plus, African-American freelance trucker

"I be wondering," says the narrator of Gayl Jones's audacious new novel, "if it be possible to tell a true jazz story, where peoples that listens can just enter the story and start telling it and adding things whenever they wants...integrate they own story...and be composers they ownself."

With Mosquito, her fourth and most ambitious novel--the second since her celebrated re-emergence last year from two decades of self-imposed literary exile--the author of Corregidora, Eva's Man, and The Healing, has written just such a story. Jones's creation is a 600-page act of literary alchemy whose narrative voice succeeds in transforming the base-metal of language into a form of burnished music; a shining, swiftly moving river of words whose vernacular rhythms and resonances raft the reader along with a sparkling passion and intelligence.

"Mosquito" is the cognomen of Jones's first-person narrator, Sojourner Jane Nadine Johnson--each name represents a different aspect of her character--a Bud Light-drinking, stun-gun-toting, 6-foot-plus, African-American freelance trucker and card-carrying member of the Perfectibility Baptist Church. When Johnson is not indulging her gifts for "remote hearing," "auditory memory," and "mystic dreaming," she hauls industrial detergents around South Texas, the hardscrabble borderland that furnishes the setting for most of the story's action.

Indeed, for a novel of such structural complexity and metaphorical and allusive richness, that action is as deceptively simple as it is deliberately circumscribed. For Mosquito is first and last a novel of ideas and ideologies, a thoroughly political fiction ("Even love's political," opines one of its characters) that discursively probes the ever-shifting nature of identity--individual, familial, tribal, national, cultural, historical, and most of all, racial. As the narrator observes, "I wish us didn't have to spend all us time thinking and talking about race. But this country were built on race. And there is always something in America to remind you that race matters."

The plot, in detail, is this: When Mosquito discovers that a young, pregnant Mexican refugee has stowed away in the back of her truck, she seeks asylum for her with the Sanctuary Movement, a modern version of the Underground Railroad run by an African-American/Filipino Catholic priest named Father Ray. As a result, Johnson finds herself reluctantly embroiled in the movement's Byzantine activities--each of them as illegal as they are clandestine--on behalf of border-jumpers, deportees, ex-revolutionaries and other displaced peoples. Upon discovering that Father Ray is not really a priest, but an ex-immigration agent turned revolutionary activist, Mosquito becomes romantically involved with him. When the movement requires his services elsewhere, the pair separates, and Mosquito continues her work as a "hidden agenda conspiracy specialist," an "archives keeper" for a Pan-African cult called "The Daughters of Nzingha," and a griot for the Perfectibility Baptist Church.

None of this, at last, is what the novel really is about. Indeed, the most conspicuous flaw in the book--and its flaws are remarkably few--is that the "action," however convincingly rendered, seems an afterthought. What clearly matters to the author above all is the book's often broad-brush, if brilliantly conceived, commentary concerning everything from the power of language and true function of storytelling, to the metaphysics of what it means to be a certain kind--a marginalized, disenfranchised, darkly complected kind--of American.

Mosquito is not a neat or gemlike book. Defiantly nonlinear, it masterfully employs many of the circuitous, halting conventions of oral storytelling. Time-frames splinter, locales shape-shift, voices overlap, dialogue turns to dream. Similarly, the novel incorporates an array of forms--letters, a play, sermons, poems, song lyrics, journal entries, chants, and riffs--each delivered in a wholly believable voice that is as improvisationally digressive and musically mesmerizing as the best jazz. The net result is a book as artfully messy and compelling as the trajectory of Jones's much-ballyhooed career, which, on the heels of one of the most heralded debuts in contemporary American literature, appeared until recently to have effectively scuttled itself on the shoals of personal tragedy.

 

The tabloidlike story of Jones's private life has often outstripped the drama of her novels. In 1975, having published her first book, Corregidora, to wildly positive reviews (Toni Morrison, then at Knopf, was her editor), the 25-year-old author was hailed by the likes of James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, and John Updike as destined for literary stardom. "She was," as her friend, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Richard Ford has remarked, "prized."

At 26, she was tenured at the University of Michigan and shortly thereafter published her second novel, Eva's Man, to reviews no less glowing than her first. A collection of stories, White Rat, followed in 1977. Each of these works explored a kindred theme--the nature of modern African-American racial and sexual identity as it inevitably is infected by the violent, insidiously dehumanizing legacy of American history. And each, at the time, was described in similar superlatives: wrenching, searing, harrowing, angry, disturbing, dangerous, brutal, nightmarish. In 1983, after becoming involved with her future husband, Bob Higgins, severing her relationship with Morrison, and angrily resigning her university teaching post, Jones found her own life mirroring that fiction.

Fleeing to Europe with Higgins--or "God," as he often referred to himself--to avoid his criminal prosecution for felonious assault, Gayl Jones fell silent. There were no more books. Family and friends were left to wonder about her whereabouts. Higgins was convicted in absentia in 1984.

Ten years ago, the couple quietly returned to Jones's native Lexington, Ky., where she cared for her cancer-stricken mother. Then, early last year, she published The Healing, her first novel in 22 years. While it won her renewed critical accolades, it also attracted the attention of the local police who sought to serve Higgins with his outstanding arrest warrant. What ensued was a three-hour armed standoff that culminated in Higgins's suicide when he slit his throat with a butcher knife, and Jones's temporary commitment to a mental hospital.

None of which ought to detract from--anymore than it need enhance--the tour de force that is the author's latest accomplishment, nor muffle the note of hope that her narrator sounds near the book's conclusion. "We has spiritual perfection," she declares, "and we has the capacity to reverse the fables about usselves and attain the truth of who we is and who we wants to become." One hopes, because the novel stirs in us the desire to hope--not only for Jones herself, but for all of us--that such an affirmation is not misplaced.

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