In 1975, the brilliant young black writer Gayl Jones published a beautiful and powerful blues novel, Corregidora, about a blues singer, Ursa Corregidora, and her hatred of the slave owner who had fathered both her grandmother and her mother. A year later, her somewhat less successful but no less grim novel Eva’s Man appeared, about a woman caught in the grips of a bleak sexual obsession that turns deadly; the next year, she published a book of short stories, White Rat. Although she would in 1981 publish a novel in verse, Song for Anninho, about two lovers who flee to Brazil, and a scholarly work, Liberating Voices: Oral Tradition in African American Literature (1991), the author herself largely disappeared from public view, and she left her professorship at the University of Michigan. She thus became something of a mystery woman, rumored at times to have fled to Brazil, like the characters in her verse novel, to be living in Paris, and to be at home in Lexington, Kentucky. In February, 1998, her third prose novel, The Healing, appeared, and the attention it garnered led the police in Lexington, Kentucky, to make the connection between the Bob Jones who was threatening local officials over the death of Lucille Jones, Gayl’s mother, and the Bob Higginson with whom Gayl Jones had fled in 1983 after he had been arrested on a weapons charge. The police department’s attempt to arrest Higginson on this charge led to a police standoff that ended with his suicide and Jones’s hospitalization.
This harsh story is the one that will serve as an implied introduction to most readers of The Healing, and that is a shame. Though The Healing is a worthy equal, at least, to Corregidora, the more successful of her earlier novels, it is a far more mature work, at least as daring in its stylistic innovations but far more generous in its characterizations. Most surprising, in The Healing, the streak of irony that cuts through all of Jones’s novels occasionally crosses over into humor.
When readers meet Harlan Jane Eagleton, she is a faith healer who travels from small town to small town, mainly peddling her services to small Southern black churches. Jones immerses the reader into this world in what amounts to a dizzying introduction, as she reports not only on the people she sees and meets but also about the skeptical gossip they are probably sharing behind her back. Jones writes all dialogue without the benefit of quotation marks (or even the James Joycean introductory dash) and a minimum of “he said” and “she said” attributions. This formal technique demands an absolutely perfect pitch from the writer to prevent the dialogue from running together into unintelligibility. Jones succeeds admirably, and if the technique demands precise attention from the reader, the payoff is that the reader is made to inhabit the main character’s skin more thoroughly.
The novelistically promising prospect of following a faith healer in her travels is detoured when a man from her past shows up with a message that Nicodemus has been freed from his prison. The rest of the novel is devoted to telling readers who this mysterious man is, who Nicodemus is, and how Harlan became a healer. Before her first healing (which she performed on herself after she was attacked with a knife), she was the manager of a rock star, Joan Savage, who emerges as one of the novel’s most commanding characters.
A brilliant woman with a hyperkinetic intelligence, Joan is presented as an artistically ambitious but only moderately successful musician before Harlan assumes management of her career. Harlan and Joan meet at a party, and when Joan learns that Harlan is a beautician, she impulsively asks for a beauty makeover right there at the party. Harlan becomes first her travelling make-up artist and later Joan’s business manager, in an unlikely transition that is never explored but that makes sense in the world of small-time travelling shows. Harlan’s management is presented as successful not so much because of her brilliance as a manager but simply because she devotes herself to the business at hand. Seeing opportunities for money to be made abroad, she gets Joan several international bookings, with the result that Joan’s career takes off in exciting new directions. The interplay between the direct Harlan and the unpredictable Joan makes for the novel’s central relationship, and its dynamic is implied by Harlan’s middle name, Jane: Not only is Jane Joan’s other half, but her straightforward plainness is also contrasted with Joan’s persona, as real in her personal life as on stage, as “Savage Joan, the Bitch Darling.” (In fact, it is hard not to suspect that both Joan and Jane are ego projections of the author—one the...