“A novel,” wrote Stendhal, “is a mirror carried along a road.” In Cyn-thia Shearer’s new book, the road, literally speaking, is that between the invented town of Madagascar, Mississippi, where the action is centered, and Memphis, the other major setting; metaphorically, it is the distance the South has traveled from about 1950 to the early 21st century, and, more broadly, America’s current directions. The sociological slant of the mirror Shearer holds up to nature is clear from the Cataloging-in-Publication data, which categorize the novel as dealing with Africans in Mississippi, the Delta, race relations, popular music, teenage boys, and immigrants (or, as the publishers’ publicity copy says, emigrants).
The South, always a ready topic, is familiar to Shearer; though born in Massachusetts, she was reared in Georgia and later lived in Oxford, Mississippi, where she became curator of Faulkner’s house. Described as “burned out on Southern Literature’s [sic] tragic dirge as a representation of how we live,” she wants apparently to revivify literary tradition by denouncing again the Old South and portraying the New. In so doing, she suggests means of redemption for the past and remedies for present ills, which include capitalists’ greed, dehumanizing urbanization, moral corruption among prosperous whites, and the destruction of a stable (if impoverished) black society.
The chief means of redemption, the leaven, is apparently the multiculturalism of the new rainbow order. The characters include a Mauritanian boy of 15 named Boubacar, newly arrived, and his uncles, all followers of Islam; illegal Honduran migrant workers, ill paid; a Chinese shopkeeper, Angus Chien, who owns the Celestial Grocery; a white farmer, Dean Fondren, who once, defying his caste, helped a black youth acquire land; and Peregrine, a student of mixed race from Princeton, with ancestral ties to the area. (Shearer thus picks up the Southern Gothic topic of miscegenation.) The relationships among these characters are generally harmonious, and their lives, it is implied, authentic. A half-crazed but beloved old white woman represents those of an earlier generation who broke with prejudice. This is Marie Abide, who, decades before, as an unmarried pregnant girl, was protected (at their risk) by a young black woman and her man, a Muslim named Prophet Pegues; love between Pegues and Marie is mentioned explicitly. Forced by social workers to give up her child, she was interned in an asylum, then returned to live in the boathouse (not the big house) of her ancestral property, thus both claiming and denying her heritage. She is portrayed as a beacon, rejecting both the old prejudices and the new commercialism. That she was born in Paris of an artist mother, makes money selling handmade birdhouses of fanciful design, and may be the daughter of Henri Matisse suggests that art, too, constitutes salvation.
The contemporary lives contrasted with these include clichés of the traditional South—bigoted Ole Miss boys and rich girls who drive to the country to drink and listen to blues but marry in their class. There are also American blacks whose degraded lives have lost the authenticity furnished by earlier suffering and religious faith. (This decline reinforces, implicitly, the Faulknerian theme of salvation through suffering.) Prophet Pegues’s sons have turned to crime and drugs; the black boy whom Fondren helped, now a major landowner (said, surprisingly, to be listed by Standard and Poor), has gambled away nearly his entire fortune in the casinos that help create the new Mississippi wealth and must sell his farm machinery. Then there are the outsiders, newly rich, who buy up farmers’ lands for casinos and agribusiness, and especially the contemporary urban middle class, the new Babylon, with its deep moral and social flaws—disconnected, atomistic, shopping at chain stores in identical malls or at upscale groceries for yuppies, and on whose television screens “America raged.” This class is illustrated by a dysfunctional Memphis family: the father, a new “big daddy” (prosperous urban professional) and a serial adulterer, often absent; the mother, though well meaning, without authority over her children and ineffectual; and Chance, the 15-year-old son, who wears Goth costumes, spikes his hair, whines constantly, plays violent video games, and listens to the vilest of so-called music.
Shearer works to connect her numerous characters and plots, although some elements are puzzling (a consequence, probably, of the work’s having begun as 13 linked short stories). Repeated symbols, themes, and motifs, including emblematic objects (cars, guitars, signs, jukeboxes), help make a whole of the disparate threads. On occasion, the symbolism appears too heavy (another trait Shearer’s novel shares with certain Southern fiction). A major motif is music, with snatches of lyrics cited—genuine blues (contrasted to tourist blues on Beale Street), black Gospel music (Shearer attended black churches to study it), bits of folk music, rock ’n’ roll, a Tejano song concerning deportation, rap, Mauritanian songs played on African instruments. Shearer described her novel as involving “a personal quest to understand the history of rock-and-roll, its origins in the Delta music, and the Delta music’s origins in Africa,” especially connections to African and Middle Eastern Sufism. Whether or not the novel furnishes such understanding, existential importance is attributed to music. Chance’s mother uses snatches of songs from her youth as a buoy; the jukebox in the Celestial Grocery, which remains as it was in 1968, helps others hold on to their lives. Peregrine has come to Memphis with her drug-addicted boyfriend because of their interest in the blues; she wishes also to find her family roots—her great-grandmother, Ariadne, was a black servant of Marie’s family—and when she discovers them, she is changed. Readers will respond variously to such musical motifs and the implicit claims made for popular music; ascribing deep social significance to it may seem far-fetched to some. Other repeated motifs are slavery, both in the American South and Africa—where, for example, Boubacar’s paternal family belonged to the father of the Wastrel, now settled in Mississippi—and religion, whether that of black Protestants or Muslims. (Shearer wanted to give the book “the combined intensity of a Tantric religious text and an African-American COGIC church service.”)
While readers of Chronicles will be in broad agreement with Shearer’s critique of many features of current American life, her favoritism toward Muslims appears odd, in view of the basic incompatibility between Islam and the Occident, evidenced by attacks from Islamic extremists, the refusal to assimilate and the aggressive demands of many Muslim immigrants, and the expressed hostility of millions of Muslims to everything Western. (Boubacar would like to veil the American girls and women.) Similarly, despite the appeal of Consuela, a Honduran woman whom Angus Chien loves, uncontrolled immigration from below the border and lax enforcement of the law will not appear to all observers as desirable.
Shearer’s prose is vivid but marred by inconsistencies and errors, including unfortunate mistakes in grammar (made by the narrative voice), tolerated by the publisher: like instead of as and as if, comma splices, dangling participles, her after than, a wrong verb tense. The allusive chapter titles, some derived from songs, seem forced. Farfetched comparisons, such as “the soft fury of rose petals,” and puzzling details, such as an “upside-down cigarette” (being smoked), are distracting. A car is said to be parked a mile from a music joint, yet people there see Chance put his guitar on its seat; Chien is said to have arrived in 1938, during the time of the 20th-century Chinese exclusion. Characters demonstrate knowledge that they cannot yet have acquired. Perhaps the chief flaw in execution is in point of view. Summarizing Boubacar’s thoughts (or another’s), the author sometimes adopts a restricted point of view (if not quite free indirect style), putting herself as it were in his head, employing his vocabulary, assuming his limits; then, she violates this restricted viewpoint without suitable transition. What matters here is not literary orthodoxy or the dishonor done to sacrosanct principles (of Maupassant, James, Forster) but the distracting effect of such practice.
Part of the “tragic dirge” of classical Southern literature, along with nostalgia for the lost cause, was the realization that whites might be redeemed by those they had oppressed. “I would be black if I could,” the pregnant Marie had said to Prophet. In Shearer’s contemporary Delta, the tragic vein has changed, not disappeared—she sees the grave failures of contemporary America; but redemption is conceivable for only those native-born who are, in some way, outsiders or hold stubbornly to old roots. The rest are either weak or corrupt. While the immigrant community similarly is at the margin, not the center, its promise lies, presumably, in its radical novelty, by which it is untainted by the Southern past. Boubacar, having made enough money for a bus ticket by playing his guitar, is off to a town in upstate New York. Whether and how he will prosper and what that might mean, for himself, for America, for those he left in Mauritania—all that is unclear. What is certain is that Shearer has illustrated here what she calls her “mental affinities” with Muslims, along with her core belief that America is “many, many demographic ‘realities.’” This novel is a restatement of the mantra of the new age, with reference to both popular culture (a sure attraction) and a heavy inheritance, refashioned, from the past; the author sings to the beat of the times.
[The Celestial Jukebox, by Cynthia Shearer (Washington, D.C.: Shoemaker & Hoard) 431 pp., $25.00]