Frank Money. I can’t think of a better, more ironic, name for the hero of Toni Morrison’s new novel, Home. In only 148 short pages (somehow I picture Toni Morrison on that old game show Name that Tune proudly declaring, “I can name that tune in zero notes!” like she could divine what the song will be; and she herself does not waste a single note, syllable or word when she composes) she takes us Home – to an emotionally and psychologically damaged Korean war vet trying to find his way back to Georgia to rescue his little sister from some deep trouble. More so than any past novels, this one is about as straightforward and accessible as a Morrisonian narrative can get, though there’s a brilliant little conceit where between chapters Frank Money is speaking directly to Morrison and reveals some gut-wrenching secrets.
As she paints for us Frank Money’s journey, Morrison gives us glimpses into the lives and mindsets of people marginalized by society and peppers her tale with those signature Morrison observations, including one passage that playfully argues the only logical response to Truman dropping that atom bomb was for the subculture to create bebop and scat. There’s also a great little episode where Frank Money is taken in for the night by a good Samaritan whose young son (a precocious and determined math wiz) interrogates Frank about his time in Korea and ultimately how if felt to kill a man, and how Frank’s responses color the boy’s view of this strange guest in his house. The boy’s “deep” his father had warned Frank…but when asked what he wants to be when he grows up, the boy responds to Frank succinctly, “A man.” (pg 33)
It could be argued this is the defining theme of the novel. When marginalized by society, it’s hard to be a man – it’s hard to be free when everything shackles you. Morrison’s novel opens with a prelude describing a childhood memory of Frank’s where he and his sister, Cee, once witnessed stallions duking it out in a wide open field and how Frank recalls the horses as, “…so beautiful. So brutal. And they stood like men.” (pg 5) But it’s that clouded fantasy vision of the horses that overshadows the real horrors witnessed that day…the cold burial of a nameless man in a ditch (are we to assume the victim of a lynching?) In typical Morrisonian fashion, things come full circle in the end, where a deeply heartfelt and symbolical act is carried out to restore that dead man’s legacy.
As always, a Morrison novel is overripe with blunt common sense – one old woman reasons with young Cee, “Misery don’t call ahead. That’s why you have to stay awake – otherwise it just walks on in your door.” (pg 122) – juxstaposed with blossoming symbolism and long, lyrical sentences that would make William Faulkner weep as witnessed in the following passage describing the resilience of Frank Money’s hometown –
The sun, having sucked away the blue from the sky, loitered there in a white heaven, menacing Lotus, torturing its landscape, but failing, failing, constantly failing to silence it: children still laughed, ran, shouted their games; women sang in their backyards while pinning wet sheets on clotheslines; occasionally a soprano was joined by a neighboring alto or a tenor just passing by. “Take me to the water. Take me to the water. Take me to the water. To be baptized.” (pg 117)
Reading a Toni Morrison novel is akin to experiencing an exorcism – but not a silly, cinematic head-spinning, vomit-spewing exorcism. No, instead think of it like “I had no idea people lived or thought like that but what a great KNOWING has now conjured itself through their trials and tribulations” kind of exorcism – you know, like a quasi- Buddhist “out of great suffering comes enlightenment” kind of thing. And there’s no writer who casts this kind of spell better than Toni Morrison. And don’t be afraid…don’t think that because of who she is she’s only concerned with a narrow view of very trifling folks that someone of her stature would under normal circumstances look down on or scold (much like the character Lenore does to everyone around her in Home) – don’t be afraid she’s going to limit you or her characters or our shared experiences. No – she’s concerned with something so much grander – the great patchwork of humanity – something decidedly and hauntingly democratic and striving to be free.
No Morrison novel is complete without a new riff on her old theme, and a wise old woman named Ethel is the one to voice it in Home. Morrison keeps telling us over and over in her works that “You are your own best thing.” Well, it’s no lip-service, friends, and as long as she lives and breathes, Morrison is America’s own best thing. You’d be a fool not to listen to her. And in listening, maybe she’ll help you just a little bit in knowing yourself.
Written by David H. Schleicher