Coming Home in Toni Morrison’s New Novel

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) Continue reading

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A Wheel Upon the Earth

While living for six years in the New South at the turn of the millennium, I was struck by a certain I-don’t-know-what-ness.  Underneath the smothering yet genuine gentility and kindness there was still an undercurrent of “sticking to your own kind” – and it wasn’t just down lines of race, but down political, religious and social class lines.  Birds of a feather should flock together.  This certainly isn’t unique to the New South.  This undercurrent (sometimes seen as a tidal wave) has always existed to varying degrees across the world.  But what made it unique in my eyes, and positively Southern, was that it was coupled with this melancholic and melodic nostalgia for a time before that was better than now – yet it was a time that was not clearly defined, only dreamt about, perhaps having never really existed and only ever dreamt about.  It begs the questions, when exactly was it better?  What about the good ol’ days of Jim Crow?  Was it better during the Great Depression?  Was it better during the days of Slavery?  Or maybe it was better before any white or black men set foot on the land and there were only trees, beasts and Native Americans? 

Yet even I found the milieu intoxicating…the whole “Country Time Lemonade” commercial-ness of it all – lazy Sunday afternoons on the porch, Ma and Pa sipping on sweet tea, the kids running barefoot through the tall grass – the kind of laid-back twilight feeling that “once upon a time…it was always like this…it could always be like this…if only….”  And for the better part of those six years I yearned to let my North East jackass-ery and uptight-ness slip away into a world of Yes, Sir’sNo, Ma’am’s…and Thank You Kindly’s.

I think maybe writer director Robert Persons was trying to capture that I-don’t-know-what-ness of the New South in his troubling yet haunting experiment, General Orders No. 9, which exists as an amalgamation of poetic voice-over, ambient music, stunning images verging on still-life, animated maps and an overall “otherworldliness” of bygone times set to the crawling cadence of 72-minutes on film. Continue reading

America by Walker Evans

Walker Evans (1903-1975) was undoubtedly one of America’s greatest photographers.  His black-and-white images stand as time capsules of an America now gone but still familiar.  Evans is best known for his iconic images of sharecroppers hit hard by The Great Depression as part of his work for the Farm Security Administration.  During my recent visit to Cooperstown, NY and the Fenimore Art Museum, I was able to see their amazing collection of Walker Evans’ photographs.  I was struck most not by his most famous images from the Dust Bowl and America’s Heartland, but by his images of America’s East Coast during the same time period.  His photographs of people and places spanning the hardened core of America’s original thirteen states from New York City to Atlanta captured an America that was shell-shocked but resilient, an over-developed and industrialized stretch of the Eastern Seaboard that was crumbling and decaying but populated by survivors — an America that would eventually pull through the Great Depression and produce the Greatest Generation defined by their heroic actions in World War Two.

Here are some of my favorite images from Walker Evans: Continue reading