IN DREAMS, A SINGLE detail from one scene can pivot the dreamer into another scene -- something unrelated, incongruous in waking life but in sleep, possessed of a logic all its own. The transition is so seamless that the dreamer hardly notices.
In The Salt Eaters, Toni Cade Bambara's first novel, a black woman is sitting on a stool in a hospital, watching numbly as a fabled healer named Minnie Ransom attempts to bring her out of her depression, or her mental collapse, or perhaps it's simply overwhelming tiredness -- whatever led her to slit her own wrists and try to gas herself. As Minnie Ransom hums and flounces her dress and drapes her shawl, as Velma Henry sits frozen in her white gown, scenes from the past and present swim by in no particular order. One scene fades into another, observed by characters who seem chosen almost at random: a lonely bus driver, an ex-pimp, a raging feminist, an intellectual waiter who has no difficulty linking thermodynamics with voodoo and billairds. The shifts are so smooth, sometimes it take us a moment to realize they occurred. There are flashes of political meetings, cozy conversations in sidewalk cafes, grueling protest marches and animated bouts of "Disposal" (a very funny, surrealistic board game in which players vie to get rid of contaminated nuclear waste).
In short, this book is a long, rich dream pivoting on a hospital stool, widening from the center the way one of its characters allows a scrap of memory to widen: "If she could get a pinch of it, she was thinking, she could pull out the whole of it intact. . . . It was like reaching in the back of the drawer for the emergency twenty-dollar bill fallen down between the drawer and the back of the desk. The nails of two fingers barely getting a grip, the tips of the fingers reading the difference between wood and paper, then slowly a slip of it is between the flesh of the fingertips so it can be pulled forward."
Dreams are not easy to follow, and The Salt Eaters is not an easy book to read. Too many people swarm by too quickly. Too much is described elliptically, as if cutting through to the heart of the matter might be considered crude, lacking in gracefulness, not sufficiently artistic. There were times (particularly late at night) when the swaying, to-and-froing, roundaboutness of the plot actively irritated me. Come on, I wanted to say, give us some help here! Couldn't B just once follow A in this book? Do I have to put all the pieces together myself?
But you can't keep a grudge against a writer who talks about an "out-of-town-who's-his-people-anyway husband," and who gives us people so brave and sweet and battle-weary as Velma. ("Velma the swift; Velma the elusive; Velma who had never mastered the kicks, punches and defense blocks, but who had down cold the art of being not there when the blow came.") Above all, you have to love that down-to-earth mother hen of a healer who knows enough to ask, "Ask you sure you want to be well? . . . Wholeness is no trifling matter. A lot of weight when you're well." As in Gorilla, My Love and The Seabirds Are Still Alive (Toni Cade Bambara's first two books, both short story collections), what pulls us along is the language of its characters, which is startlingly beautiful without once striking a false note. Everything these people say, you feel, ordinary, real-life people are saying right now on any street corner. It's only that the rest of us didn't realize it was sheer poetry they were speaking.
It may seem an outlandish association, but when I closed this book I thought of Isaac Bashevis Singer. Singer's Polish Jews have nothing in common with Toni Cade Bambara's small-town black Americans except their vitality on the page -- but it's such a teeming brimming vitality, made poignant by our foreknowledge of doom, that it comes to be the keynote for both authors. In The Salt Eaters the sense of foreboding is almost oppressive. Velma may have chosen wholeness, finally, but that's no guarantee of ease or happiness, and Minnie Ramsom knows there's worse to come for everybody. Finishing on this note, the novel becomes unexpectedly moving. The small world it illuminates seems more alive than the world around the reader's armchair and the tiny, distant voices of its inhabitants -- singing, crying, laughing, cursing -- linger in the air. This is a powerful piece of writing. The effort spent in deciphering it is rewarded many times over.