Over more than 40 years, Toni Morrison has made her luminous art out of some of the darkest aspects of American history. Slavery and the human landscape that was its inheritance are the special territory of her fiction. Winner of armfuls of awards, and, in 1993, the Nobel Prize, Morrison is a writer who coaxes astonishing beauty out of pain and tragedy and an unparalleled master of memory, able to evoke the way that it deceives, doubles back, and blooms from experience. At the age of 81 she’s more than earned the right to rest on her laurels.
But if anything she has picked up the pace in the last several years, with the publication of A Mercy, a tale of the 17th-century slave trade, in 2008, and now Home. This, her tenth novel, hews closer to the present than many of her previous books. Set just after the Korean War, Home is the story of a traumatized 24-year-old black veteran, Frank Money, and his younger sister, Cee. At first, it bears some striking resemblances to Sula, Morrison’s 1973 novel set in a small Ohio town after World War I. Both books open with injured soldiers in a hospital, soon thrown on the mercy of others, who survive by keeping a bottle between the present and the blood-soaked past.
The parable — at a scant 150 pages, Home is austere, even for a writer who keeps it short — lays bare the hardships and vicious discrimination that are Morrison’s stock in trade. As Frank travels across the country, from the Northwest to Georgia, to rescue Cee from a situation whose horrific outlines become clear only toward the end of the book, he moves through a hostile land relieved occasionally by an act of charity from another black man or woman who can scarcely afford to spare it. This is a book in which, if a train stops in a town, you know something bad is going to happen (and it does, twice).
Slavery may have been abolished nearly a century ago, but much hasn’t changed. Forced to turn to a minister for food, shoes, and a few dollars in his pocket, Frank is told that he’s not the first veteran to come for help. “An integrated army is integrated misery,” the man tells Frank in one of the history lessons Morrison dispenses in the first few pages. “You all go, fight, come back. They treat you like dogs. Change that. They treat dogs better.” The man’s wife soon chimes in, “Maybe you think up North is way different from down South. Don’t believe it and don’t count on it. Custom is just as real as law and can be just as dangerous.”
We’re being schooled, by a writer who’s become a little impatient with poetic window dressings. There’s history to explain. And there’s horror to reveal. Morrison has never shied away from the darkness in men’s souls, but in Home she’s something of a depravity artist. In this brief tale, a soldier shoots the head off a little girl scavenging for food in a Korean military camp, a black woman’s sexual organs are experimented upon by an “arrogant, evil” white doctor with books about eugenics on his shelves, and a father and son are forced, like dogs (that metaphor again), to fight each other to the death surrounded by white men placing eager bets on the outcome.
Morrison’s fiction has spellbound us for four decades, and monstrosity has often been at the heart of her tales. Indeed, her best-known book, Beloved, the ghost story she based on a real historical figure and which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988, concerns an escaped slave who cuts the throat of her toddler daughter rather than see her recaptured and returned to bondage. But even in a book as grim as Beloved, goodness and love are there too in liberal measure, and so is ordinary life, the canvas upon which even horrific events must be painted.
In Home, evil is omnipresent — almost cartoonishly so — and it is the fabric of everyday experience that is squeezed into the margins. As a novelist, of course, Morrison is permitted all the liberties that a nonfiction writer is not — even if her stories are rooted in history. But there’s something unsettling about seeing a writer whom we’ve long viewed as nothing short of a national steward produce a story that drips with weary disgust, offering on nearly every page fresh evidence of human cruelty. It is difficult to avoid the feeling that Home is meant as a rebuke — of the racists who have perverted our history, yes, but of her readers, too, and, indeed, of all humanity.
Lotus, Georgia, where her characters Frank and Cee Money grew up, is both bile and balm. In the end it claims them and redeems them in a familiar story arc that is comforting, but, this time, not entirely convincing. Perhaps history has turned out to be a bitterer brew than Morrison can continue to swallow.