Gayl Jones' 'The Healing': weirdness, tragedy

March 08, 1998|By Jennifer E. Mabry | Jennifer E. Mabry,SUN STAFF

"The Healing," by Gayl Jones. Beacon. 283 pages. $23.

Gayl Jones' first novel in 20 years, "The Healing," was, by some accounts, to have been a major literary event. However, two dark clouds hang over it. One is personal, violent and tragic. The other is the literary quality of the book itself.

The story begins in the most recent stage of Harlan Truth Eagleton's life as a traveling faith healer. Jones traces that life from the end to beginning, starting with her on the road to a "healing." The reader revisits Harlan's life and the relationships that seemingly accounted for her departure from some of the temptations and distractions of the physical and material world, for more spiritual pursuits.

Harlan narrates a murky tale of off-beat relationships and the discovery of her spiritual gift to heal. As Harlan tells "witnesses" to one of her healings: "I am just a ordinary woman, that is the point of the healing. The spirit of the ordinary, but as for me, I'm just a ordinary woman."

Jones splices together what seem to be important events in Harlan's life, but the story's non-sequential mixing of the past with Harlan's present narration makes it difficult to comprehend. Fans of Jones' work will no doubt delight in Harlan's folksy way of spinning stories and find her quirky, personal relationships and observances on life amusing. Some of the more interesting characters readers are introduced to include brash, sharp-tongued Joan Savage, the musician-friend Harlan manages, and married businessman Josef Ehelich von Fremd, a sophisticated African-German with whom Harlan briefly becomes romantically involved.

For all of the hype preceding Jones' return to the literary landscape, the book is as its character describes herself - ordinary. It is not well told, but rather muddled and disjointed.

The story plods along, failing early to give the reader compelling reason to care about or connect to this peculiar, obscure character.

The other cloud involves Jones' personal life. Her husband, Bob Higgins, committed suicide on Feb. 20. He was a fugitive, wanted on a 15-year-old weapons charge that stemmed from an incident that occurred during a gay-rights rally in Michigan in 1983.

Considering the chaos and mystery and weirdness of Jones' life, it is difficult not to believe that the character of Harlan is partially autobiographical. Near the end of the book Harlan says to Joan: "Only a few of us are queens. The rest of us are pawns in a man's game." Sadly, this revelation by Harlan seems applicable to Jones' real life.

Twenty years ago, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou and other esteemed critics saw literary brillance in Jones' writing that, today, appears to have lost its luster. At best, my interest in the characters was heightened upon learning about Jones' real life and her unusual relationship with her husband. Unfortunately the circumstances of Bob Higgins life and death place the spotlight on the writer and her work for many of the wrong reasons, and the author does not live up to the promises of 20 years ago.

Jennifer E. Mabry is assistant books editor and a contributing writer at The Sun. She holds a doctorate in mass communication, from the University of Maryland.

Pub Date: 3/08/98

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