A new novel about drug addiction swaggers into a tough room. The classics already there should inspire shakes and palpitations, enough anxiety of influence to make all but the most desperate writer drop the idea cold turkey. Just the past three years have produced a line of beauty that stretches from Marilynne Robinson’s “Home” to Roxana Robinson’s “Cost” to Lily King’s “Father of the Rain.” These are some of the finest recent American novels on any subject, but all of them portray the horror of watching a loved one drink or snort or inject himself to death.
Each of these writers managed to say something fresh about drug addiction, which tends, in its cruel way, to reduce a great variety of people to the same predictable plot: denying the problem, promising to quit, hitting rock bottom, falling into relapse and finally climbing up (or falling down) those 12 steps. How to get that monkey off his back is the drug addict’s existential challenge; how to avoid the cliches of drug addiction is the novelist’s.
Martha Southgate offers a promising response to this problem in her latest novel, “The Taste of Salt.” Her narrator, Josie Henderson, is a marine biologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. “I am the only black senior scientist there,” she tells us in the opening pages, but that, it turns out, is as much a complaint as a boast. As a child, classmates used to ask her, “How come you talk so white?” and since she was a teenager, Josie has systematically removed herself from the company of other blacks, moving first to a private school, then to Stanford and finally into a field that attracts few people who look like her. Living far from her home in Cleveland and marrying a white man only further confirmed her distance from her family. “I put it all behind me,” she says, “put them all behind me.” Now, secure in her prestigious position, she wonders if she’s not “too black in a white profession.”
Even the ocean — her second home and the novel’s underlying symbol — seems to exclude everyone in her old neighborhood. “A lot of black people,” she explains, “don’t like the water. Or perhaps I should say, they never find out whether they’d like it or not. Why? A million reasons dating back a hundred years: hair, money, time, lack of opportunity.” And so, with that candid, casual voice, Josie quickly sketches herself as an accomplished black woman, torn between pride and sorrow because she’s so removed from other blacks.
And here’s where Southgate complicates the story of addiction in an interesting way. Josie’s ambivalence about her racial identity is enmeshed in her desire to escape the stain of alcoholism that has colored her father’s life and her brother’s. She was once close to her charismatic sibling, Tick, but now, she thinks, “He’s like a stone around my neck.” To be a member of her family is to be associated with the degradations and sorrows of the bottle; to abandon them, to wash them away in the ocean, to attain a prestigious spot in the white world is to enjoy a kind of freedom she has spent her whole life craving. As her brother reaches out to her to keep himself from drowning in alcohol, her reflex is to recoil from “that little nibble of shame. . . . I’m afraid they’ll take me down with them.”
As a former editor for Essence magazine, Southgate has long been interested in the tension between successful blacks and white society. In 2007, she published a disarmingly frank essay about the loneliness of being a middle-aged African American woman who writes literary fiction. “There just don’t seem to be that many of us out there,” she wrote, “and that’s something I’ve come to wonder about a great deal.” Her first novel for adults, “The Fall of Rome” (2002), tells the story of the only black teacher at a ritzy white prep school, and her next, “Third Girl From the Left” (2005), followed a young black woman into (and out of) the film industry. Without rancor or blame, her fiction and nonfiction have offered an especially insightful guide to the continuing challenges of America’s integration.
Unfortunately, her new novel makes only a minor contribution to that body of work. The relative weakness of “The Taste of Salt” stems partially from the persistent flatness of its language. The narrative voice that initially seems intimate gradually begins to sound merely lax, such as: “He picked her up like she was a feather — after having two kids! — and carried her to their room, and they made love and this time it was perfect. It was so so sweet.” Or: “My field of study is the behavior of marine mammals, which, let me tell you is not easy. . . . I’ve had to work pretty hard to get to where I belong. But I did it.”
Despite that pedestrian voice, it’s difficult to believe that Josie is really narrating some of the other chapters herself. She begs us to “indulge” her: “I will even imagine scenes I did not witness,” she warns, “speak of the thoughts of other people.” For a marine biologist who claims “Narrative is not my speciality,” these imagined scenes read like impossibly sophisticated works of storytelling. They demonstrate the complicated structure and sympathetic detail that sound a lot more like an experienced fiction writer than a researcher who says rather clunkily: “I’m a scientist. I like to get to the bottom of things.”
Another problem is Southgate’s tendency to wander away from Josie and the issue of her conflicted racial attitudes. Whole chapters are devoted to filling in the details of her parents’ courtship, her father’s subsequent descent into alcoholism and her brother’s agonized efforts to sober up. These are sad, earnest tales, written with an open-hearted gentleness and lack of pretension that’s humane but not particularly original or compelling.
All the attention poured on those other characters’ sad lives tends to dilute what we really want from this story: a fuller, more searching portrayal of a black marine biologist so eager to escape her family’s demons that she starts to lose control of her life. Quick to condemn and cast off the weak men in her family, Josie must eventually confront a sad truth about her own desires, her own lack of willpower. But that fresh story loses its savor among an old one that we already know too well.
Charles is The Washington Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
THE TASTE OF SALT
By Martha Southgate
Algonquin. 272 pp. Paperback, $13.95