Toni Morrison was born in Lorain, Ohio, in 1931, and Lorain was the setting of her first novel, The Bluest Eye (1971). Black girls could and did grow up there, envying the patent leather shoes, Kelly green knee socks, velvet coats, and rabbit fur muffs of popular “high yellow” girls with sloe green eyes and long hair. There were other discoveries to be made in that town besides the casual cruelty of light-skinned class mates: a father could rape his daughter.
Sula (1974) was set in Medallion, an imagined place. The black neighborhood up in the hills was known as “the Bottom” because a white farmer once explained to his slave that when God looked down on his land it was the bottom of heaven. There black women endured their fractured lives, accepted or regretted the few choices life gave, tended their memories of good and bad men. One grieving mother torched her junkie son.
Song of Solomon (1977), an ambiguous parable, began in another Mid-western town, complete with right and wrong sides of the track. The novel also visited hamlets fastened along the littleknown roads of rural Pennsylvania and Virginia, through which the harassed protagonist, Milkman Dead, traveled in search of lost treasure, sanctuary from bodily harm, and, well, his roots.
These real and imagined places were close enough to the Ohio River for the people who lived in them to feel the torpor of the South, the nostalgia for its folkways, to sense the old Underground Railroad underfoot like a hidden stream. In these novels one found family homes drawn in loving, excessive detail, ordinary people living out odd lives, in isolated, remote places, sometimes comfortable, sometimes pockets of danger. The rhythm of life in these novels encouraged pages of description and provided earnest but expected reflections. The characters in one book, as they talked with one another or stepped into the pantry for sex, seemed like kissing cousins to the characters in the next book, talking, picking berries, or sneaking in the door after a night’s assignation.
There is no Ohio in Tar Baby. The setting is exotic—an imagined tropical island called Isle des Chevaliers, privately owned, found off Dominique. But, like the small towns in the previous books, it also has its allegorical lore. Visitors and natives tell versions of a fishermen’s tale explaining that the island got its name from the blind descendants of a group of slaves who went blind the minute they saw Dominique. “Their ship foundered and sank with Frenchmen, horses, and slaves aboard. The blinded slaves could not see how or where to swim so they were at the mercy of the current and the tide.” They rode the horses to the shore. They hid. “What they saw, they saw with the eye of the mind, and that, of course, was not to be trusted.” The legend has it that they are there still, riding over the lush hills and through the dense rain forests.
The story is not entirely confined to this mysterious island. The characters in Tar Baby recall the mansions of Philadelphia, trailers in Maine, the cream-colored streets of Paris of their past lives. There are heated moments in Manhattan. A hamlet in northern Florida, an all black town called Eloe, turns out to be very much like Eatonville, Zora Neale Hurston’s celebrated birthplace in the same region. Travel, in Morrison’s earlier novels, tended to mean crossing the country. Here, there are frequent and anxious escapes to the reservations counter at Air France.
Something else has changed. The laboring poor of The Bluest Eye, the self-sufficient women and drifting men of Sula, the avaricious middle class and defiantly marginal citizens of Song of Solomon—they are gone, replaced, in Tar Baby, by the rich, their servants, their dependents, and the sans culottes who threaten their security. Though much is made of money, fashion, commodities as consciousness, and the experiences open to the privileged, the cultured, and those clever enough to hustle a piece of the action, the people living on Isle des Chevaliers, voluntary exiles all, seem to inhabit a world that is oppressively parochial and provincial.
Valerian Street, seventy, a recently retired Philadelphia candy manufacturer, has left the family firm and his affairs in the hands of others and retreated to his cherished house, L’Arbe de la Croix, situated on a hill “high enough to watch the sea from three sides.” The house, with its “handkilned tiles from Mexico,” its splendidly carved windowsills and door saddles, its “sixty-four-bulb chandelier,” its two kitchens stacked with “really fine china” and silver trays for fruit and petit fours, its washhouse and gardens, is surrounded by avocado, bougainvillea, poinsettia, lime, banana, and coconut trees “so bountiful it made visitors tired to look at them.”
Valerian spends most of his time in the greenhouse, among seed catalogues, dahlias, and hydrangeas. It is a nice place to “talk to his ghosts.” He keeps a small refrigerator filled with Blanc de Blancs and flips a switch that brings forth the sounds of the “Goldberg Variations” to soothe the Magnum Rex peonies. Haydn and Liszt are for strong sprouting, and all the plants seem content with Rampal’s recording of Mozart’s Rondo in D. One of the servants complains, “He hauls everybody down to the equator to grow Northern flowers?”
When Valerian is not brooding in the greenhouse, he is presiding at table, bickering with his wife of thirty years. Margaret, an aging, insecure beauty queen from Maine, with “blue-if-it’s-a-boy blue eyes,” and beautifully shaped “ivory fingers,” is wracked by the sleeplessness of the guilty between “Billy Blass” or “Vera” sheets. She longs to flee their island haven and yearns for the company of their son, Michael, whose precise whereabouts and degree of sanity are difficult to determine. Valerian accuses Margaret of secret drinking, mocks her table manners, corrects her pronunciation of “Eurydice.” His pretensions are somewhat ludicrous: his family fortune is not old and he is a graduate of Temple. Valerian and Margaret sleep in different rooms. They engage in an all too familiar form of what Proust called “reciprocal torture.”
Through the decades this couple—white, by the way—has been faithfully served by another couple: Sydney, the “quick-witted” butler, and Ondine, his wife, the cook. “Stand on any feet for thirty years and they might talk back,” Sydney remarks. He and Ondine have been carrying, brushing, dicing, chopping, baking, and washing for years. They are dutiful, thrifty, proud. “I am a Phil-a-delphia Negro mentioned in the book of the very same name.” (The reference is to W.E.B. DuBois.) Though there is much friendly teasing in the manner of confidences between trusting master and loyal servant, Sydney and Ondine are unsettled by the move to the island and uneasy about their final days. Their wishes for the better life are represented by their niece, Jadine.
Jadine has come from Paris to rest, to decide what she is doing with her life, to get her act together. Mr. Street is her benefactor. He paid for her college education; his money sent her to the Sorbonne. “Too many art history courses, she thought, had made her not perceptive but simpleminded.” Not only did Jadine, twenty-five, pass her orals in Paris; she also became a model. Haute couture, face on the cover of Elle. The fast crowd and “three count three gorgeous and raucous men to telephone you or screech up to your door in Yugoslavian touring cars with Bordeaux Blanc and sandwiches and a little C.” Jadine, nestled in a baby seal coat sent by one of her admirers, muses a lot about why she fled Paris. “I wonder if the person he wants to marry is me or a black girl?…What will happen when he finds out that I hate ear hoops, that I don’t have to straighten my hair, that Mingus puts me to sleep, that sometimes I want to get out of my skin and be only the person inside…?”
The people on Isle des Chevaliers have much on their minds. Valerian concentrates on completing his retreat from the America he no longer understands; Margaret struggles with her vague discontent; Sydney and Ondine worry what their careful, steady progress amounts to; and Jadine frets over her identity as a black woman, her motherless, fatherless, unwed state, her career, which career, her place in the large world, her position on the island. All are haunted by recurring opaque dreams, by memories of what they have lost, renounced. Inner monologues drift through the heat; themes are pulled out and rummaged through like the many clothes in the several closets. Everyone is poised for a dramatic happening. The table has been set for a troubled Christmas in the sun.
Michael, the prodigal son, does not show up for the holiday feast. But—guess who’s coming for dinner—a dirty, hungry black man with “dreadlocks,” discovered hiding out in Margaret’s closet, is invited by Valerian to eat and drink, much to the consternation of everyone else. His presence confuses further the already tense, tangled relations in the house. Once he is cleaned up, shaved, and put in a Hickey Freeman suit, Jadine finds him hard to resist, though she does her best. “You son of a bitch. I need this like a wart.” Son, the black man, has been at sea for eight years, on the run because he accidentally mowed down his adulterous wife in a rage. He is shrewdly parsimonious with his words—at first. Love—for Jadine—liberates his tongue and he, like everyone else, can talk, talk, find omens in the weather, prophecies in the conversation of picturesque natives.
Christmas dinner brings the startling revelation that Margaret tortured Michael as a child, burning him with cigarettes. That night Jadine and Son become lovers and take off, leaving the old in their emotional ruins. But their love does not last. They want different things. Son can’t cope with the heartless competitiveness of New York. Jadine is menaced by the backwardness she finds in rural Florida. Son only wants his “original dime,” Jadine wants much more than chump change.
“Please. Don’t give me that transcendental, Thoreau crap. Money is—“
“Don’t look disgusted. I’m illiterate.”
“You’re not illiterate. You’re stupid.”
They have violent quarrels; they make up passionately. Even so, Jadine leaves him—for once the girl wins—and returns to Isle des Chevaliers to see how many pieces her family and patrons are in (and they are in quite a few pieces, but carrying on) before she boards a plane to continue life in the fast lane in Paris. “Still it would be hard. So very hard to forget the man who fucked like a star.” Son cannot forget either, and follows her, but only as far as Isle des Chevaliers where, slipping onto the island like one of the slaves in the legend, he rushes blindly through the night to—to do what? We aren’t told, but we assume that whatever it is, it is no good, desperate.
Picking out what happens in Tar Baby is like trying to keep one’s balance in a swamp. The writing is so elaborate that it distracts and obscures. Many labored metaphors and phrases that are not quite true images occur.
Queen of France [a town] blushed a little in the lessening light and lowered her lashes before his gaze…. Like the hand of an insistent woman it [the current] pushed him…. Still the water-lady [the same current] cupped him in the palm of her hand and nudged him out to sea…. Just as suddenly the water-lady removed her hand and the man swam toward the boat anchored in the blue water and the not green…. Poor insulted, brokenhearted river. Poor demented stream. Now it sat in one place like a grandmother and became a swamp…. A house of sleeping humans is both closed and wide open. Like an ear it resists easy penetration but cannot brace for attack. Luckily in the Caribbean there is no fear. The unsocketed eye that watches sleepers is not threatening—it is merely alert which anyone can tell for it has no lid and cannot wax or wane…. Fog came to that place in wisps sometimes, like the hair of maiden aunts. Hair so thin and pale it went unnoticed until masses of it gathered around the house and threw back one’s own reflection from the windows…. The maiden aunts [still the fog] huddled in the corners of the room, were smiling in their sleep…. The avocado tree standing by the side of the road heard her and, having really seen a horse’s shit, thought she had probably missed the word…. The girl’s face was as tight and mean as broccoli…. The air was so charged with pain the angel trumpets could not breathe it…. The loudness of the plants was not audible….
Imposing human qualities on inanimate objects does not make Isle des Chevaliers more interesting or more deeply felt. The narrative often conveys the thoughts of the characters in the same manner, which only serves to make their feelings indecipherable.
The attempt to evoke unknown places poetically and to suffuse the work with a feeling of myth and magic suggests the high, assertive styles of such writers as Carpentier, Asturias, or Marquez. But the language of Tar Baby is, at best, strained, and the convoluted verbal conjurings make for a tone that is overreaching, taxing to the ear.
When laborers imported from Haiti came to clear the land, clouds and fish were convinced that the world was over, that the sea-green green of the sea and the sky-blue sky of the sky were no longer permanent. Wild parrots that had escaped the stones of hungry children in Queen of France agreed and raised havoc as they flew away to look for yet another refuge. Only the champion daisy trees were serene. After all, they were part of a rain forest already two thousand years old and scheduled for eternity, so they ignored the men and continued to rock the diamond-backs that slept in their arms. It took the river to persuade them that indeed the world was altered. That never again would the rain be equal, and by the time they realized it and had run their roots deeper, clutching the earth like lost boys found, it was too late…. The clouds looked at each other, then broke apart in confusion. Fish heard their hooves as they raced off to carry the news of the scatter-brained river to the peaks of hills and the tops of champion daisy trees….
Ran every which way indeed. This seems closer to the lush, tropical, flamboyant flights of Ronald Firbank.
It is hard to know what Morrison means by these passages, difficult to decide what her characters represent. In anthropological studies such as those of Melville Herskovits one finds that a tar baby is a monster who stalks the woods near plantations, preying on children. Tar Baby is also the subject of a well-known folk tale about a trickster thief who gets trapped in his own snare. Both are applicable to this novel—perhaps. Folklore, of a kind, has always percolated through Morrison’s work.
Many of Morrison’s previous concerns are here—having to do with the inner life of black women and especially the offhand, domestic violence and conjugal brutality that burn out daily life. Much of the recent fiction by Afro-American women contains these themes. Their message is new and arresting, as if, in the past, the worries of the kitchen or the bedroom were not sufficiently large to encompass the intense lives of black people in a racist society. But Tar Baby’s sense of such experience is inchoate, muffled. One wishes for the fierce concentration, the radical economy of the novels of Gayl Jones as they describe the inner world of black women in language that is harsh, disturbing, and utterly unsentimental.
April 30, 1981