The starred Kirkus review praises Toni Morrison’s Home as “deceptively rich,” without elaborating on the nature—or at the levels—of the deception.
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The Nobel Prize-winning novelist hasn’t attempted any card tricks with the novel, pulled rabbits out of her sleeve or sawed her protagonist in half. But she’s a magician nonetheless, and this small novel underscores the oversized scope of her virtuosity.
What’s initially deceptive about the novel is the generic setup. For “generic” is just about the last thing you’d expect from the Nobel Prize-winning Morrison, arguably America’s greatest living novelist, who has never fit into any of the conventional categories or the stereotypes associated with them. She defies the usual expectations of “African-American literature,” “female fiction” and especially the much smaller group of “octogenarian novelists.”
But her latest is a very short novel, barely longer than a novella, the kind of career capper we’ve come to expect from other American greats who had established their reputation with larger-scope fiction: Bellow, Roth, even Cheever’s last novel was much shorter than the ones preceding it, though the short story was the province he ruled. And the setup, the framing, makes one fear that a particularly short novel from Morrison might rely more on convention than she typically does.
For, at the outset, Frank Money seems more like a type, a generalization, than a fully fleshed, individualized protagonist. He’s a Korean War vet who returns to an America that is far more segregated and institutionally racist than the army in which he has fought. He finds readjustment difficult, and so he drinks to smooth the transition, though his alcoholism only confounds his difficulties.
“An integrated army is integrated misery,” someone tells him, and thus the reader. “You all go, come back, they treat you like dogs.” And we, the readers, feel like we already know all that, from other books, if not firsthand experience. We feel like we know Frank, what type of man he is (for, again, he seems like a type), what plagues him. The only question is whether the thematic arc will lead to his redemption or an even lower alcoholic bottom.
Yet we have misjudged, deceived ourselves, undersold Morrison’s literary ambition. Not only don’t we know Frank, but Frank might not even be the protagonist of this novel. Or at least he must share its focus, for it’s his sister, Cee, introduced later, who provides the novel with its heart. She’s the one who remained “home,” whatever that connotes, and it’s the relationship between brother and sister that feels more like home for each of them than any geographical location.
Whatever Frank has survived in Korea, Cee has suffered far worse, through an inhuman medical experiment that has left her a shell of a woman. Maybe it’s her redemption or transformation that is at stake here. Maybe the fictional magic lies in the relationship that Morrison has created between Frank and Cee, siblings separated by gulfs in geography and life experience, but who can only learn who they are, become what they will, through each other.
By the end of the novel, Morrison has delivered one that’s as emotionally rich and devastating as her longer, more celebrated works. Another category into which shorter novels sometimes fall is “minimalist,” but Morrison’s fiction no more fits that label than any of the others. She’s sui generis, the only one capable of writing a Toni Morrison novel such as this.
Longtime music journalist Don McLeese is the author of Dwight Yoakam: A Thousand Miles From Nowhere, out now, from the University of Texas Press.