Faith and the Good Thing works on several levels simultaneously. At times a realistic account of the experiences endured by African Americans moving from the rural South to the urban North, it is also a folk fable concerning mythic figures such as the Swamp Woman, a combination of philosopher and voodoo priestess. The novel is also, in part, a philosophical inquiry into the nature of physical and spiritual reality and human personality. Finally, it is an adventurous narrative that follows the travels and trials of its title character.
The novel begins when Faith Cross is commanded by her dying mother: “Girl, you get yourself a good thing.” Puzzled, Faith consults the Swamp Woman, incredibly ancient and eerie, who orders Faith to go to Chicago but refuses to reveal just what the good thing will be.
In fact, there seems to be little good in Chicago, where Faith quickly sinks into a life of prostitution and drugs, an episode that the novel describes in a surreal combination of reality and illusion. Here, Johnson displays his ability to combine black folk idioms with rich, evocative language.
Faith is rescued, after a fashion, through her marriage to Isaac Maxwell, a young black reporter for a Chicago newspaper. Maxwell, who speaks constantly of the will to power and who fancies himself a dominant personality, is a portrait of the ineffectual black intellectual cut off from his own heritage and not fully accepted by the white culture. Although Faith’s material wants are satisfied, Maxwell cannot meet her spiritual needs, and her life remains barren and unfulfilled. When she reveals her past to Maxwell, the marriage disintegrates, and Faith is eventually murdered by a former lover. In the novel’s ending, Faith’s spirit returns to Georgia, where it exchanges places with the Swamp Woman.
Faith and the Good Thing was Johnson’s first published novel, although he had written six others previously. He credits Gardner with providing him with much of the discipline and insight required to construct the work, but the themes, characters, and approach are clearly those of its author.
Lavidia Cross, a black widow in rural Georgia, had little to leave her only daughter, Faith Cross, except a mysterious injunction: Faith must get herself a “Good Thing.” In Faith and the Good Thing, Faith Cross goes to Chicago, first to discover what this Good Thing is and then to acquire it.
Before her mother’s death, Faith had been “saved,” and for a time she had thought that God would bring her happiness, but the idea of the Good Thing supplants salvation as her guiding force. Puzzled, she consults a mysterious werewitch, the Swamp Woman, who sends her to Chicago.
In Chicago, Faith’s pursuit of the Good Thing does not begin auspiciously. A thief steals her money; when she turns to the friendly stranger Arnold T. Tippis for help, he takes her to a hotel, rapes her, and starts her in a career as a prostitute. Faith becomes increasingly dependent on drugs and gin in order to detach herself from the body which she is selling. When she realizes that, in telling the stories of her beloved father, Todd Cross, to her customers, she is also selling him, she knows that the Good Thing is receding beyond her reach. Yet Faith rejects the easy answers of the mission. The Good Thing, she insists, must be in the street, not in the Church.
At this point, the thief who stole her money reappears, identifying himself as Dr. Richard M. Barrett, a philosopher, who is also looking for the Good Thing. In his Doomsday Book, which is empty, Faith can see her own lost childhood, her own home, and all the good of the past, which is all the more precious because it can never be relived. Even after Barrett dies, he haunts Faith, a habit which seems rather a mixed blessing to her.
When Faith meets Isaac Maxwell, a young assistant news editor who is hardworking and ambitious, she thinks that he may be the Good Thing. After all, he is paid regularly and he will do whatever pleases...
(The entire section is 1,572 words.)