Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Hardcover, 304 pages
Published September 5th 2017 by Scribner

A searing and profound Southern odyssey by National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward.

In Jesmyn Ward’s first novel since her National Book Award winning Salvage the Bones, this singular American writer brings the archetypal road novel into rural twenty-first-century America. Drawing on Morrison and Faulkner, The Odyssey and the Old Testament, Ward gives us an epochal story, a journey through Mississippi’s past and present that is both an intimate portrait of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle. Ward is a major American writer, multiply awarded and universally lauded, and in Sing, Unburied, Sing she is at the height of her powers.

Jojo and his toddler sister, Kayla, live with their grandparents, Mam and Pop, and the occasional presence of their drug-addicted mother, Leonie, on a farm on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Leonie is simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she’s high; Mam is dying of cancer; and quiet, steady Pop tries to run the household and teach Jojo how to be a man. When the white father of Leonie’s children is released from prison, she packs her kids and a friend into her car and sets out across the state for Parchman farm, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, on a journey rife with danger and promise.

Sing, Unburied, Sing grapples with the ugly truths at the heart of the American story and the power, and limitations, of the bonds of family. Rich with Ward’s distinctive, musical language, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a majestic new work and an essential contribution to American literature.

Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing is true Southern Gothicism at its finest. It is a novel that I’ve been waiting a very long time to read, and I mean that both literally and figuratively. There is so much within these pages—so much angst, so much wonder and so much sorrow—that I am still grappling with it even now. And that’s a wonderful thing, the best feeling and the most lasting impression a writer can ever bestow on their reader.

I read, before reading this novel, that Jesmyn Ward had recently been called the modern-day Faulkner, and I doubted this, I admit, likely because of all the books out there I’ve encountered doing reviews that are buoyed up by their awe-inspiring cover flaps and exalted comparisons to other, greater works, only to fall flat on their faces under the weight of such lofty and inaccurate comparisons. But Sing, Unburied, Sing is the real deal. Its utter humanity and heart bursts forth from every page, particularly leading up to the climax, never shying away from the reality of hard living, always staring it down right in its face, urging us to look it in the face, too. Don’t turn away. I could never turn away.

This is the tale of two Mississippi families, one black and one white, joined by bloodshed and bloodlines. Joined by love and hatred, by death and birth. But this is also a coming-of-age story of one teenaged boy, Jojo, whose life is forever changed. Jojo is the biracial son of the often high, often absent Leonie—who sees her murdered brother, Given, in drug-induced hallucinations—and Michael, whose hostile, racist family will never accept his black girlfriend and half-breed children. Jojo is caught between being a parent to his three-year-old sister, Kayla, and learning to be a man from his grandfather, Pop. But this place he is emotionally sandwiched between is a place he calls home, a place of comfort and togetherness, between Kayla and Pop—until Leonie comes back from a bender and piles them all in the car on the way to Parchman Penitentiary to retrieve Michael from the prison that has changed and ended so many lives connected to theirs. It is on this journey that Jojo sees the naked truth of racial hierarchies and the hatred the South is all too known for, and discovers his gift of sight he never knew he had. And it is also on this journey that Jojo faces who his mother is, what she is capable of and what she will never be.

“When I wake, Michael’s rolled all the windows down. I’ve been dreaming for hours it feels like, dreaming of being marooned on a deflated raft in the middle of the endless reach of the Gulf of Mexico…Jojo and Michaela and Michael with me and we are elbow to elbow. But the raft must have a hole in it, because it deflates. We are all sinking, and there are manta rays gliding beneath us and sharks jostling us. I am trying to keep everyone above water, even as I struggle to stay afloat. I sink below the waves and push Jojo upward so he can stay above the water and breathe, but then Kayla sinks and I push her up, and Michael sinks so I shove him in the air as I sink and struggle, but they won’t stay up: they want to sink like stones…they keep slipping from my hands…I am failing them. We are all drowning.”

If a hallmark of Southern writing is setting, Ward’s novel offers that in spades. Here, in the blazing sun of Mississippi, you can feel the sweat dripping from the characters’ brows, feel their pulse as they confront one another—as they confront themselves. The suffering within these pages was tangible, palpable, like a pulse in the air, a drumbeat at the turn of every page. It marked the characters’ lives just as numbers mark the bottom of each page. But Ward goes beyond that—beyond the quintessential tale of Southern burdens, anguish and racial hate, beyond the stereotypes we can all so readily pluck from our minds to describe the Bible Belt in all its historical wonder and terror. My one note of criticism is that the voices didn’t always sound realistic for the characters. JoJo and Leonie’s chapters after sounded like they were coming from the same voice (the sophisticated voice of the author rather than the rugged voices of folks who have been through some “thangs,” and that rang false to me). But, when I say that Sing, Unburied, Sing is true Southern Gothicism at its finest, I mean that it binds, bridges and merges every aspect of the genre—social commentary, magical realism, surrealism and grit. Blood, sweat, tears, but, most of all: haunting and poetic soul. That it did in spades despite the hiccup with the voices.

This novel will stay with me for a long time. There were aspects of this book that I did not immediately like, but that all came together in the end. And, quite honestly, I haven’t read such an emotively resonating ending like that since Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif,” and for that I could only ever give a well-deserved 5 stars. *****

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**I received a copy of this novel from the publisher, Scribner, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Jesmyn WardJesmyn Ward is the author of Where the Line Bleeds, Salvage the Bones, and Men We Reaped. She is a former Stegner Fellow (Stanford University) and Grisham Writer in Residence at the University of Mississippi. She is an associate professor of Creative Writing at Tulane University.

Her work has appeared in BOMBA Public Space and The Oxford American.

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Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor

Paperback, Reissue, 256 pages
Published February 6th 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published 1952)

“…that church where the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way. Ask me about that church and I’ll tell you it’s the church that the blood of Jesus don’t foul with redemption…there was no Fall because there was nothing to fall from and no Redemption because there was no Fall and no Judgment because there wasn’t the first two. Nothing matters but that Jesus was a liar…”

Wise Blood is the story of Hazel Motes, a recently discharged twenty-something war vet who returns home to Tennessee to find the town abandoned and his childhood home dilapidated and deserted. So, he leaves the town behind and takes a train to Taulkinham, where he meets the crude, ignorant and possibly OCD/mentally ill Enoch Emery. Together, they encounter a blind preacher turned sometimes street beggar, Asa Hawks, and his 15-year-old daughter, Sabbath (her name in itself an ironic play on the themes of this novel). Motes becomes entangled with the Hawks’ as he embarks on the notion of atheism and—fully embracing it partially out of resistance to Asa Hawks’ idea that Motes needs to repent for his sins—starts his own church, the Church Without Christ. As he starts preaching his message of salvation through truth from the nose of his old car, he encounters a street-preaching swindler, Hoover Shoats, who steals Motes’ idea of the Church Without Christ and uses it to get rich, also preaching a varied version of that message on the streets, which effectively pushes Motes out of his own market and idea. When he finds out that Asa Hawks is also a crook, he takes up with his daughter, who proclaims of him:“I said look at those pee-can eyes and go crazy, girl! That innocent look don’t hide a thing, he’s just pure filthy right down to the guts, like me. The only difference is I like being that way and he don’t.Soon after, Motes’ disillusionment starts its descent into completeness, as a series of events pushes him to enraged murder and finally to self-mutilization and recluseness. Meanwhile, Enoch Emery’s story line branches off into him becoming enamored with, and then literally turning into, a gorilla, which came off as a little slapstick in its presentation and fell flat for me as a whole.

Wise Blood seemed to hit the ground running toward something definite and profound from the very first page. Rushing toward an abandoned home in Tennessee, then rushing toward Hazel Motes’ warped coming-of-age prophecy of atheism and a “new jesus” (yes, lowercase). O’Connor hit on salient, hard-hitting moments of ironic verity and outright cultural authenticity in true Southern Gothic fashion: Christianity versus atheism in the post-war South, Christian hypocrisy, redemption, isolation, and coming of age. In that way, it had its moments of dazzling literary insight. The characters were, for the most part, well realized, each offering a necessary ingredient to this Gothic tradition. And yet.

A little-known fact of this this novel is that it was originally not a novel at all but a collection of short stories (published in various publications). The first chapter of Wise Blood was an expanded version of Flannery O’Connor’s Master’s thesis, and several of the other chapters were reworked versions that she revised so that they could all fit together as a novel. Hence, Wise Blood was born, but the thing is, it didn’t work 100% as a fluid work of literature. For the most part, it did. For the most part, this novel read as a cohesive story with fully realized narrative arcs and satirical if not poignant realizations throughout. Yet, Enoch Emery’s character dragged down the latter part of the novel, because the short story that he derived from, “Enoch and the Gorilla,” did not fit with the theme of the rest of the novel. It felt disparate, like it didn’t belong, which, of course, is true since it was originally a separate short story, but it should not have felt that way to the reader.

O’Connor’s use of vernacular was spectacular.

The sense of setting was complete.

And yet, though we make a habit of saying here in the South, “One monkey don’t stop no show,” in this case, it certainly did. 3.5 stars ***

The Heavenly Table by Donald Ray Pollock

I received an advance-read copy of this book from the publisher, Doubleday, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Hardcover, 384 pages
Expected publication: July 12th 2016 by Doubleday
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When I sat down with The Heavenly Table by Donald Ray Pollock, I was all set to have my love for Southern Gothicism stoked here—forget that, even just my love for a great read in the Southern tradition. Anyone who follows my reviews knows that I’m a sucker for it. Yet, The Heavenly Table fell unexpectedly flat for me, I’m sorry to say.

Here you’ll find the story of the Jewett boys, regular hillbillies turned cowboys in 1917 Georgia, chasing a Buffalo Bill-type dream and their own versions of “the heavenly table,” a metaphor used throughout this novel. Here, you’ll also find an entire cast of colorful characters whose big personalities jostled for space within these pages.

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For me, the problem with this read came down to two very important counterparts that didn’t marry well here: plot and soul. You can have a wonderful premise—a killer idea and plotline all sketched out—but that doesn’t mean that it will be executed with a real feeling of ambiance and depth. And for a novel whose blurb wants it to live up to the Southern Gothic tradition (with references to Quentin Tarantino, no less!) it has to have soul. Period. Otherwise, peel that label off and call it something else. Call it “Django with a 3 Stooges cowboy twist.”

The premise of Pollock’s The Heavenly Table was great—the characters filled the pages; the vernacular added some awesome local color; the setting was rich and there were a couple of Gothic elements that tipped their hat toward the tradition of O’Connor and Faulkner. I even saw Tarantino here, featuring cartoon-like descriptions of gore and debauchery that were cinematic and would translate well on the big screen. (In fact, this one would probably make a better movie than it did a read.) In short, the fundamentals of the story itself were fine, maybe even good, but I never felt any depth. I’m not even talking “feels,” just enough depth to make it funny, to make it feel real even in its raucousness.

     The Heavenly Table was beautiful as a metaphor but fell short in that it never gripped me and pulled me in. True enough, each character had some spit and dirt to them—in that way, it was gritty—but the rest of the grit came off as superficial and referential to other great works, to others’ great styles, and not fully of its own character. It didn’t make me yearn for the next flip of a page to see what lay in wait on the other side. To me, it read as classroom-learned writing with no natural swag. This was my first foray into Pollock’s works. It read like a 1st novel, which is surprising coming from an author with the renown that Pollock has amassed thus far. What I will say about this 3rd major work of Pollock’s is that he did let his own Southern Ohio, blue-collar roots hang out with a confident flamboyance and devil-may-care flair that I appreciated, making the read feel authentically Southern.

But Rule #1 is always: Don’t tell me; show me. And I think that one was tossed to the wind here in favor of superfluous character plotlines and backstories—I still can’t figure out what some of those characters were even doing in there, let alone why they had entire backstories of their own—and debaucherous accounts of adventure that I could see but not feel, not taste, not touch myself. It fell short of being fully 3-D for me, cinematic though the plot aimed to be. Without that added depth of flavor, without that thickened roux at its base, the cinematic appeal lost a little of its verve and sparkle— it lost some of its Rabelaisian humor appeal.

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That extra word count from all of those storylines would’ve been better served filling out the story of the main characters. This one had too many ideas that could have been narrowed down to a much better read. Yes, yes, I get the attempt at weaving several intricately woven stories together so that they come together surprisingly in the end—it’s awe-inspiring when done right—but this wasn’t that. This was too many ideas—some of which were poorly executed or simply unnecessary—with the end result being me confused about who was who and whether or not they would show up again often enough in the novel for me to even care about them (sometimes the answer was no). Really, The Heavenly Table took the long way to its finale and dragged in too many characters to do it, with the end result not having the kick that it could have. There were serial killers tossed in for the hell of it, like “oh by the ways” tossed in just for good measure, just to make sure the read was good and raunchy. I didn’t respond well to that kind of fabricated grit. Was Heavenly Table gritty (as the blurb stated) because it had heart or because debauchery was heaped on debauchery? I’d say the latter, like a bawdy and mildly depraved version of the Slapstick genre: events were just happening just to be happening at some times, and that really turned me off.

Yet, to others, this might be a real selling point, as it was indeed Rabelaisian. For those who want to ride along with a good ole early 20th century American adventure story, complete with liquor, whores, murder and debauchery, this is most definitely the read for you—and you’ll LOVE it! But if you’re looking for more depth based on the blurb, don’t be fooled by the O’Connor reference—you won’t find that kind of true soul of allegory here. 2.5 stars **