Toni Morrison's 'Jazz' shows that under the pain there is beauty, humor, love

April 26, 1992|By Richard Eder | Richard Eder,Los Angeles Times


Toni Morrison.


226 pages. $21. "Jazz" is a half-waking dream on a lumpy corncob mattress. Its voices shift, almost in a single sentence, from down-to-earth to intensely poetical. It alternately asserts, and transforms what it asserts. Each shift -- each page, virtually -- begins with a tangible jolt of discovery, and dissolves, making way for the next shift and dissolution. It can be difficult to follow, yet immensely exhilarating. We raft down Toni Morrison's white water, get mired when it sinks into passages that run too deep underground and float off when it breaks into the open.

"Jazz" has fewer undergrounds than did "Beloved," its predecessor. To my mind, it surpasses it. Nearly as heart-stopping in its intensity, "Jazz" is on the whole a freer and sunnier book.

In part, this is because of its theme, a kind of sequel to that of "Beloved." From the darkness of slavery and its nightmare aftermaths, it moves into the glitter, the exaltation and the pain of the turn-of-the-century migration of black people from the rural South to the cities of the North.

The theme is played out principally in the story of Joe and Violet Trace, a Harlem couple who moved North in 1906. Set 20 years later, when they are in their settled and comfortable 50s, it tells how they shatter and heal after an act of passion and violence.

Toni Morrison stories, like the blackbirds that fly through Joe's memories, never come singly. "Jazz" ranges back into the haunted and still blood-stained Virginia countryside of the 1890s. It relates death and disappearance, and the struggle of black people to survive and scratch out a living under a brutal white hegemony. And yet it is their struggle and their living, and that is the difference from the times of "Beloved."

Freedom is a banked ember for the abused sharecroppers but, among other things, it is freedom to get on a train. And when, at 30, Joe and Violet finally do; and when, north of Delaware, the Jim Crow green curtain that divides the dining car is pulled open, the ember flares into a blaze. "Jazz" is the story of the blaze, of its magnificence. These were the years when Harlem meant hope, excitement, empowerment, choice, the material flash and glisten of city life and a modest prosperity -- and the destruction it brings about at the same time. Joe and Violet partake of both.

Everything bleeds into everything else. Ms. Morrison's events all father ghosts, and by no means are all of them tragic. The suicide of Violet's mother after white men break up her home lives on in the long state of depression she goes through later. Her grandmother's fierce, life-defying smile lives on in a fierce smile of her own. The disappearance of Joe's mother "without a trace" -- the neighbors use the phrase; child Joe assumes that he must be "Trace" and adopts it as his surname -- erupts in his middle age as he desperately pursues a teen-age lover. But the laborious will to survive he learned as a young farm worker, and the moral strength, imparted by an old black hunter, come with him as well, and enable him to survive his tragedy.

So much for the theme and, very vaguely, the story. But even if developed in 10 times the detail, they would barely be the skeleton. They would be an opera's libretto without the music. "Jazz" is no arbitrary title, and not simply a motif. Jazz is the world of Joe's young lover, and musicians play it in the cool evenings on Harlem's rooftops. But much more than that, it is the very form, voice and core of this wonderful book.

Amid the pain, there is a beauty that Ms. Morrison achingly

conveys: of the countryside and the deep loyalty of the black farmers to the land and each other; and of Harlem in its glory days. There is a humor that braids into the pain and goes as deep.

The black sharecroppers are burned out to free them to harvest the white man's cotton, a bumper crop after years of drought: "Softer than silk and out so fast the weevils, having abandoned the field years ago, had no time to get back there." Young Violet, an itinerant cotton-picker, sleeps out in the fields one night. Something falls from the tree beside her. "The thump could not have been a raccoon because it said Ow." It was the first meeting with Joe, who had been sleeping in the branches.

The stories fan out through Harlem at a time when drink, sex, disrespecting the elders, and the knife fight were the measure of social decay; when church groups held bridge parties, and neighbors strolled and sat out on the stoops. They fan back to the ghosts in the South. There is a young man brought up as white by his rich mother, who learns his father is black and goes to confront him. There is Joe's wandering mother who takes to the woods, lives in a cave and is attended by flights of blackbirds.

The story of Joe and Violet could have been either a tragedy or a melodrama with appropriate climactic endings. But Ms. Morrison has written a book that ruminates and discourses, that wanders into climaxes and wanders out of them, that follows its riffs

through pain and celebration, that moves all the time while neither leaving the past nor disappearing into the future; that is, in her word, jazz.

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