Improbable Assignment

BY WILFRID SHEED
TAR BABY
by Toni Morrison. Knopf, $11.95.
MOST BLACK WRITERS are privy, like the rest of us, to bits and pieces of the secret, the dark side of their group experience, but Toni Morrison uniquely seems to have all the keys on her chain, like a house detective. In Sony of Solomon she used the run of the whole place, from ghetto to small town to ramshackle farmhouse, to bring back a panorama of black myth and reality that dazzled the senses. In Tar Baby she has done half this and half something else, something rather peculiar.
Let it be noted right off that Morrison comes equipped with three safety devices that keep her from plunging all the way into a bad book. She has a subject and a sound (several sounds, in fact: Pearl Bailey for mirth, Billie Holiday for slyness, perhaps Ethel Waters for the deeper notes) and a very good editor—herself. The editor, whom I see as a rather severe sort, is crucial, because she enables Morrison to swing and bop to her heart’s content. Without that cold intelligence looking on, the sound could easily lapse into pseudopoetic incoherence, and the subject get lost in the sound.
If Tar Baby is, as I believe, the editor’s weakest book so far, it is also her most improbable assignment. The Bluest Eye and Sula were, for all their resonance, one-to-two-note books. Song of Solomon, conversely, was a wild thing—you just had to let it run. The editor picked out the words, but the plot fairly careened around black America, or seemed to: the art of it was to appear out of control.
With Tar Baby, Morrison has attempted to hitch another such bucking bronco of a theme onto a comedy of manners, and they’re an odd pair. No sooner have we set up the thrumming poetry, the animistic sense that the clouds and trees are onto something big, than we are exchanging persiflage with some desiccated white folks and their gelded black retainers in a gingerbread house in the Caribbean. The contrast is, to put it temperately, heavyhanded. The plants scheme and strive, while the white boss sips his blanc de blancs in a greenhouse, more dead than alive. Man’s fragile tenancy of the planet has, I swear, been better put than this.
Perhaps like other editors (Morrison edits other people, too, in real life), she felt like showing the world how the average novel that drifts onto her desk should really be done. But I have an unshakable hunch that this first part started out to be a play and not a novel at all. Although some perfunctory nature poetry has been thrown in to broaden the effect, my mind kept racing back to Broadway. The greenhouse makes a great spatter-of-applause set, where Valerian Street (a Clifton Webb type) can get off some brittle pleasantries with his manservant, Sydney, about the nuances of corns versus bunions and with his drolly scatterbrained wife, Margaret. To wit:
“It’s just that I’m undergoing this very big change in my life called dying.” “Retirement isn’t death.” “A distinction without a difference.” “Well, I am not dying. I am living.” “A difference without distinction.” If this isn’t a parody of Broadway, it must be a grim commentary on how the white folk actually sound to their servants.
The plot mechanism is also Broadwayish. Margaret (alias “the Principal Beauty”) is waiting for her son, Michael, to show up for Christmas. Michael has in fact never shown up for anything (see Virginia Woolf et al.). But she must nonetheless go through the rigamarole of obtaining apple pie and turkey from the mainland for the prodigal who never returns.
We have been set up—oh, how we have been set up—for the next act. The folks who live on the hill commonly need these sustaining lies, which everyone is too polite to shoot down. High time now for some deus ex machina who will force the truth into the open — at which point the folks will fall apart and/or regroup and go on as if nothing had happened. (I’m sorry to be so positive, but I used to review second nights, and I know how those upper-class WASPs carry on under stress.)
So far, things have not gone too well for the Morrison gang. The sound has been heard only thinly and fitfully, and the editor is certainly no play doctor. Time then for the subject to save the day.
Morrison’s subject is too complex to define in one go. But a big part of it is the cultural price a black must pay to enter the Club and the other kinds of price he must pay to stay out. In Tar Baby we move on to the next question: Can you get out of the Club once the door has slammed behind you?
Jadine, or Jade, our heroine, has conquered the white world easily, as a high-fashion model in Paris. But before clinching her conquest with an interracial marriage, she has a slight failure of nerve. So she hies herself to the Caribbean, where her uncle and aunt are the stage-servants mentioned above.
This compromise suits her paralyzingly well. She is a star to her uncle and aunt, and an equal to their masters, who need a black equal to complete their set. As the book opens, Jade’s life is in sultry suspension, a plush Limbo where one is allowed every pleasure but the sight of God. The device that eventually breaks the tie is melodramatic and probably comes from the original play, but by then the novel has changed its tune and we are back in Morrison country. The emotional temperature has shot up drastically, and the details don’t matter.
A black drifter called Son has entered the torpid scene, never mind how, and proceeds to shake it till it rattles. Jadine at first defends the Establishment whitely against him. But chemical lines have been thrown out. She may reject the newcomer’s world, but she wants him, a black vital force in this mausoleum. Can she have him without his world? Can she pluck a black man from his setting and expect him to live?
There follows one of those tempestuous love affairs in which the number of couplings sounds physiologically impossible, but the point is made, that as long as Jade and Son can blot out both their worlds, they can have God, the ultimate pleasure. The moment they falter, they are lost. The Garden of Eden becomes a tenement lot. Jadine can then decide to stay with Son in the gray world of work and care, or she can give up her prize and return, diminished, to Limbo.
Jadine’s desperate struggle to have it both ways speaks to anyone who has changed cultures or gone up in the world. She introduces Son to her crowd, where he’s quite an attraction, but there’s no point to him there, he’s just something to dangle. She then goes with him to his hometown, an all-black village that he has mythologized, and is alternately bored and terrified by it. Son himself may be one of the wonders of the world, but the soil he grew in is mean and tired and accusing. Jade dreams of black women surrounding her bed and baring their breasts in disdain: at least their breasts are good for something besides pleasuring rich old fools in Paris.
The intensity here is immediate—you feel that if you look up you will catch the author glaring at you. Morrison must have seen many good souls lost in New York and thereabouts after just such struggles. She may have had such a struggle herself. You can’t go home again, but you can’t stay here, either. And there we are suddenly obliged to leave it. The book’s ending is irresolute, almost a “Lady and the Tiger” affair, in which you choose for yourself, and this may seem a frivolous way out of what has become despite itself a serious, important book. But it seems to me one of those cases where the novel is finished but the story isn’t. The ending is not quite ready yet.
Meanwhile, we have experienced Morrison, half at her very best and the other half presumably having fun, dabbling in something new—white light comedy—with only sporadic success. And there’s no harm in any of that.