THE HEALING by Gayl Jones

reviewed by Johanna Isaacson

MONTHS AFTER READING IT, I’m still shivering over Gayl Jones’ novel, The Healing.  Of course, the gothic autobiographical footnotes to the tale are spine tingling –after years spent as expatriate fugitives, the author and her husband returned to the U.S., where they soon attempted suicide, with Bob succeeding in slitting his throat and Gayl prevented from doing the same only through police intervention.  However, it is not thoughts of tabloid drama which are shooting these darts of post-novel frisson at me.  Rather, it’s the chills I always get when someone reinvents America for me.  

Gayl Jones

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But that sounds more grandiose than it has to.  Foremost, this novel is a playful, romantic, picaresque tale, of Harlan Jane Eagleton, a confident, beautiful, observant, self-educated African-American rock-star-manager-turned-faith-healer roaming America’s blue highways and patching together American culture from the margins, with a logic as offbeat as the roads she travels. At times, she relies on her more formally educated and more extravagantly dressed academic-turned-rock-star counterpart, Joan, to help her theorize the complex cultural phenomena she encounters, and especially what it means to be of African ancestry, American born, and a Woman, let alone an African-American Woman in a world where all of these terms are constantly shifting.
What Jones calls confabulation and elsewhere has been called magic realism turns up in the form of a grandmother who claims to once have been a turtle, and who resents the exigencies of being human.  Next in line in her matriarchal lineage is a mother who feeds every person who comes to her door, with the belief that every living soul is an incarnation of Jesus. This family line generates Harlan, who is seemingly well adjusted to the postmodern world, and feels equally comfortable and uncomfortable at a race track or an academic party or a beauty shop; who likes her fried chicken and her gourmet Chinese food; who drinks Budweiser and champagne; who watches Oprah and reads Nietszche.   A heavy peppering of pop and multi cultural references give the novel both the heft and lightness of specificity and dislodge it from the universalist values we have come to associate with certain strains of Modernism.  The narrative voice is sometimes inflected almost to the point of parody, making lists and poetic repetitions to a (Gertrude) Steinian extent.  I began to refer to the novel as “The Unmaking of the Americans”, because it has similar concerns as Gertrude Stein’s famously unread novel, The Making of the Americans in the way it portrays Americans in the process of building lives out of sheer raw material and psychic energy.  On the other hand, it seems to spoof some of Stein’s appropriations of “simple” African American dialect by showing dialect to be just one of many voices of a highly complex narrator.
At first, I found the novel to be sensual, entertaining, romantic, but thought the plot a bit too easy.  There are several romantic interests hovering around the narrator throughout the novel and with whom she takes, at times, simple uncommited pleasure.  Finally, when she takes up faith healing it seems to be on the premises of Pascal’s bet: its safer to believe in Jesus than not to; this choice at first seems to flow with, rather than contrast the  postmodern everything-goes ethos which prevails throughout the novel.  When, in the final scene, a mysterious man appears in the audience of one of her Healings, I felt as if this were the end to a delightful but somewhat predictable love story.  It is only later, when the full implications of this mystery occurred to me that I realized the depth and complexity of the novel–and the chills began.   In the tradition of Flannery O’Connor, Jones’ true oddness and her potential as a great tragedian gradually became apparent to me. And perhaps this illuminates her personal tragedy.  The devil can frolic in the details, she seems to be saying, but we cannot wholly shake the existence of an awesome mystery that lives at the heart of the American imaginary.  In retrospect, this last discordant note offsets the rest of the novel, and reveals contemporary strategies of playfulness and forgetfulness to be in constant tension with universal quests for nation and god.

A Reader's Guide to Contemporary Fiction