LINDEN HILLS, the desirable residential community which gives its name to Gloria Naylor's novel, conceals beneath its idyllic surface as many horrid secrets as Peyton Place. Drunken ministers, gay bridegrooms, madness, suicide -- Linden Hills is rich in the familiar disquiets of affluence.
But Linden Hills is not what it seems in more ways than one. Its singular topography gives some of the game away. With its eight curved roads ringing down a hill in descending order, it has a ground plan reminiscent of that of Dante's Inferno. The most sought- after of these addresses, Tupelo Drive, lies at the lowest point. When, metaphorically, you reach the top in Linden Hills, you touch bottom, geographically. And spiritually, too.
Gloria Naylor is perfectly explicit about it. Towards the end of the novel, a historian who has made a special study of the community, "the record of a people who are lost," he calls it, describes how his researches trace the residents' "headlong rush into damnation." A high price to pay for wall- to-wall carpeting, you might think.
How has it come to pass that a suburb should signify so much? Linden Hills is affluent; and it is exclusive and it is black. That is what gives Gloria Naylor's acid treatment of middle-class values its edge and why seduction by the values embodied in Linden Hills is such a betrayal of history.
"There were other black communities with showcase homes but somehow making it into Linden Hills meant 'making it.'" It is a shame that Gloria Naylor is given to sloppy writing, such as using the noun "showcase" as an adjective. Her prose occasionally gives the impression of a sermon writ in fire, by, alas, an advertising agency. Her meaning is more gripping than her style.
For, in order to make it there in the first place, and in order to continue making it according to Linden Hills' special brand of downward social mobility, you must, as old Grannie Tilson used to say, "sell that silver mirror God propped up in your soul," the silver mirror that reminds you who you are.
IN LINDEN HILLS, you can "forget that the world spelled black with a capital nothing." You apologize for serving fried chicken: "We're eating like peasants tonight."
After careful thought, you decide the people of Zimbabwe aren't ready for independence. You starve to put your kids through Harvard. You live in your aspirations, never in your present reality. You look back at the past only to measure how far from it you have come.
Hell has a landlord. A man with the strange and resonant name of Luther Nedeed bought the land when he first came north in 1837, and the dynasty he founded created the community of Linden Hills. Fathers and sons are so alike it seems, almost, that the original Luther Nedeed is freshly incarnated with each generation. They select tenants, arrange mortgages, loans, scholarships -- and finally, for undertaking is a hereditary Nedeed craft, bury them. But the present Luther Nedeed's wife has borne him a child he cannot accept as his own. His punishment of her imagined infidelity sets in motion the novel's climactic debacle.
Meanwhile, two young poets, Willie and Lester, still in possession of those silver mirrors of which old Grannie Tilson spoke, work their way through Linden Hills one snowy Christmas doing odd jobs and learning at first hand the nature of the place and of its presiding spirit. The exemplary lesson digested, there seems a reasonable chance these attractive and talented young men will create a future in which failure and success aren't measured in the barren terms of Linden Hills.
The naturalism of those sections of the novel that deal with the unhappy families of Linden Hills sits uneasily next to the diabolic stylization of Luther Nedeed's Gothic shocker of a home life. A thoroughly consistent non-naturalism might have suited the novel's arresting content better. As it is, a potent and original blend of allegory, moral fairy tale and intellectual debate about history, education and the morality of aspiration peeks out through the holes in the text Gloria Naylor has left for it in a not wholly satisfactory way.