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...
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Faith and the Good Thing is a half-philosophic, half-comic narrative that describes the metaphysical odyssey of young Faith Cross. That narrative is related by a voice that is familiar, folksy, and intrusive; it is a voice, moreover, that Charles Johnson favors in much of his fiction. As a result, readers are ever-conscious of listening to (as much as reading) a story being told by a highly self-conscious storyteller.
The very physical facts of her parents’ deaths have left Faith alone and suddenly dislocated, though there was tension enough in her world even when her parents were alive. Faith’s father, Todd, had been a man fond of the folk story and a believer in the magic of hoodoo and folk belief; he is a sort of Georgia griot who tries to sensitize his daughter to the mystical possibilities of her world and who tries to describe the often indescribable. At the same time, Faith’s mother, Lavidia, has pulled her daughter in the direction of a traditional, conservative Christianity, and from her deathbed leaves Faith with the legacy of the search for what she enigmatically calls “the good thing.”
Trying to identify and to locate that good thing becomes the essence of Faith’s quest. Faith’s first important step in that quest leads her to the Swamp Woman, who lectures Faith on the ambiguities of the good thing itself. Lectures are not enough, however, and after reading a hog’s entrails, the Swamp Woman tells Faith the story of the loss of the good thing (story, storytelling, and the proper “reading” of all sorts of stories figure largely in Johnson’s novel—readers, like Faith, must be able both to tell and to appreciate the telling of a good story). That particular story describes the mythical quest pursued by...
(The entire section is 728 words.)