Toni Morrison doesn’t have to prove anything anymore, and there’s artistic freedom in that calm. Her new novel, “Home,” is a surprisingly unpretentious story from America’s only living Nobel laureate in literature. (The accolades keep accruing: Last week, the White House named Morrison one of 13 recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.)
At just 145 pages, this little book about a Korean War vet doesn’t boast the Gothic swell of her masterpiece, “Beloved” (1987), or the luxurious surrealism of her most recent novel, “A Mercy” (2008). But the diminutive size and straightforward style of “Home” are deceptive. This scarily quiet tale packs all the thundering themes Morrison has explored before. She’s never been more concise, though, and that restraint demonstrates the full range of her power.
Restraint is also foremost in the mind of her 24-year-old protagonist, Frank Money, a troubled Army vet. He returned from Korea a year earlier with a head full of atrocities he witnessed during the war, described in scenes as quick and unexpected as a sniper’s bullet. He and his two buddies enlisted just to get out of Lotus, Ga., “the worst place in the world, worse than any battlefield.” But his friends are dead now, and all he’s got left are a vicious temper and memories of “a boy pushing his entrails back in, holding them in his palms like a fortune-teller’s globe shattering with bad news.”
The novel’s structure is one of its several small mysteries. Almost every chapter begins with a few pages of italics in Money’s raw, first-person voice as he describes his experience to a scribe. Most of the story, though, comes to us from a transparent narrator who re-creates scenes and conveys dialogue in sharp but unadorned prose — no ghosts, no magical realism, none of the famous (or infamous) impressionism that so annoyed John Updike in one of his last book reviews for the New Yorker: “Morrison has invented for her [narrator’s] feverish mind a compressed, anti-grammatical diction unlike any recorded patois.”
We meet Money on the day he breaks out of a psych ward in Seattle. Although he doesn’t know exactly why he was incarcerated, he’s full of “free-floating rage, the self-loathing disguised as somebody else’s fault.” A large black man with no money or job or even shoes, he’s got to keep moving or he’ll be picked up for vagrancy.
Morrison sketches 1950s America with just a few striking details. McCarthyism has ignited an anxious nation, and every police officer is a potential antagonist to a man with nothing to do. The Army that discharged Money may be integrated, but the country certainly isn’t, and racial covenants still preserve “good” neighborhoods. Only the ministers of black churches are willing to help without question, and Money has to get back home, although it means leaving behind the only woman he’s ever loved, the only person who quells his nightmares.
Everything about this setup suggests the potential for a sweeping picaresque of mid-20th-century America, as Money rides by train across the country. We see moments of racial violence — a black man viciously beaten at a coffeehouse — but Morrison is composing a kind of prose poem here in which only a few tightly described incidents convey the ill health of the larger culture. “Cops shoot anything they want,” a newfound friend tells Money. “This here’s a mob city.” As Portland and Chicago pass by, the offer of a good meal from a black family suggests the remnants of an underground railroad of kindness that’s still necessary.
What drags Money back to his hated home town in Georgia is dire, though vague, news about his little sister, Cee: “Come fast,” the letter said. “She be dead if you tarry.” Traveling gives him a chance to remember the lynching that drove his parents out of Texas and the loveless grandmother who reluctantly took them in. The novel’s most affecting passages involve Money’s devotion to his little sister, born in a church basement.
“Maybe his life had been preserved for Cee,” he thinks on the way home, “which was only fair since she had been his original caring-for, a selflessness without gain or emotional profit. Before she could walk he’d taken care of her. . . . The only thing he could not do for her was wipe the sorrow, or was it panic, from her eyes when he enlisted.”
Morrison’s novels have traditionally focused on women; all-female homes have been her preferred settings — “Paradise” (1997) even featured a female commune. Men in her stories are often ineffectual, or treacherous and brutal. In “Home,” a white male doctor in the suburbs is singled out as a particularly creepy fiend. He’s a modern-day version of that insidious schoolteacher in “Beloved,” a reminder of African Americans’ historically horrible relation to the science that justified their abuse from slavery to Tuskegee.
“Home” is unusual, not only in that it features a male protagonist but that it’s so fiercely focused on the problem of manhood. The novel opens with a childhood memory of horses that “stood like men.” And as Money makes his way across the country to rescue his sister, he’s haunted by what it means to be a man. “Who am I without her,” he wonders, “that underfed girl with the sad, waiting eyes?” Are acts of violence essentially masculine, or are they an abdication of manliness? Is it possible, the novel finally asks, to consider the manhood implicit in sacrifice, in laying down one’s life?
What Money eventually does to help his sister and to quiet his demons is just as surprising and quietly profound as everything else in this novel. Despite all the old horrors that Morrison faces in these pages with weary recognition, “Home” is a daringly hopeful story about the possibility of healing — or at least surviving in a shadow of peace.
Charles is The Washington Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
By Toni Morrison