Gayl Jones Jones, Gayl (Vol. 6) - Essay

Jones, Gayl (Vol. 6)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Jones, Gayl 1949–

Ms Jones is a Black American poet, novelist, and short story writer. Her second novel is Eva's Man.

Gayl Jones … has written a haunting first novel….

[Corregidora] is a deeply disturbing story, one of unrelieved bitterness and passion….

The sexual theme is well developed, but it is insufficient in itself to wholly engage the reader's sympathy….

Ms. Jones has an uncanny ear for the idiom of her characters; the language is earthy, often brutally frank. Yet, though it is possible to imagine the characters from their well-delineated voices alone, one longs for a detailed physical description of at least the protagonist.

That Ms. Jones is a powerful and gifted writer is undeniable. Hopefully, her future works will provide greater scope in which to develop this gift.

Madeleine Kenefick, "Travels with Pablo," in Literary Quarterly, May 15, 1975, p. 15.

History and fiction have yielded little about those black slave women who were mistress and breeder to their white owners. There are some facts and figures, but they tell us nothing about the women themselves: their motives, their emotions, and the memories they passed on to their children. Gayl Jones's first novel, "Corregidora," is a gripping portrait of this harsh sexual and psychological genealogy. (p. 84)

"Corregidora" is filled with sexual and spiritual pain: hatred, love and desire wear the same face, and humor is blues-bitter. There are flaws—occasional overwriting, and a too hurried look at Ursa's solitary middle years. But Jones's language is subtle and sinewy, and her imagination sure. "Everything said in the beginning must be said better than in the beginning," Ursa vows. Gayl Jones fulfills that pledge. (p. 85)

Margo Jefferson, "Making Generations," in Newsweek (copyright 1975 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), May 19, 1975, pp. 84-5.

Gayl Jones has learned, to write an interior monologue so naturally that it seems almost crude to say that she is using the stream-of-consciousness technique to build her intense portrait of the battered, Kentucky blues singer, Ursa Corregidora. To point up the stylistic connection [with] the soliloquy of Molly Bloom is also to point up a contrast: between Joyce's self-conscious experimentalism and Gayl Jones's nonchalance.

But Jones's ease is a consummate deception. She folds in so much you have to look carefully indeed to detect the seams. (p. 21)

Some readers will want to … use "Corregidora" as a feminist weapon, or reduce it to soap opera. And there is certainly the temptation to attach some flashy labels that might help this skillful novella reach a wider audience. But it would be a vulgar error to pigeonhole "Corregidora" as some kind of black, women's liberation fable….

The sexual writing—and this is a book with virtually no other subject than sex—is a model of grace and taste….

Her first novel may have problems: It is too short to give us a full enough sense of the maturing character of Corregidora but too long not to begin raising our expectations and desire for more than we get. But these are healthy defects, grains of sand, we hope, in the oyster. With any luck, Gayl Jones will soon be casting even larger pearls before us swine. (p. 22)

Raymond Sokolov, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 25, 1975.

[Corregidora] seems unpromising material for a novel, and [Gayl Jones's] plot is apparently more suited to pulp melodrama than to serious fiction. Her book begins with a young black woman improbably named Ursa Corregidora and plunks her down in a seedy Kentucky dive in the 1940s where she works as a blues singer. Enter Ursa's jealous husband, Mutt Thomas, who hurls the heroine down a staircase, injuring her so badly that her womb has to be removed. Twenty years pass. Ursa's second marriage fails. Her career takes her no higher than another dive across town. But love is a torch song. In the end the blues singer goes back to bad old Mutt.

Such a story hovers between horrific realism and howling symbolism (the loss of a womb equaling not merely the loss of fruitfulness but the whole power to love). Indeed Corregidora could be dismissed as musings on the sordidness of some of life's more desperate characters if the novel did not manage to illuminate the wider question of the way all men need women….

With considerable dignity … Gayl Jones explores black female sexuality and the remnants of slave brutality that still fester in black male-female relations. No black American novel since Richard Wright's Native Son (1940) has so skillfully traced psychic wounds to a sexual source.

Ivan Webster, "Really the Blues," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), June 16, 1975, p. 79.

Gayl Jones … has written a first novel of great power, so emotionally raw that some readers may find it embarrassing. Corregidora has the sense of life not filtered through art—a feat, since this short novel has a stiffly literary structure that wouldn't seem to allow for much spontaneity and the baroque plot and occasionally elaborate writing strongly suggest Absalom, Absalom! But Gayl Jones' special gift is to shape experience and make it seem unshaped. Corregidora reads as "authentically" as Nate Shaw's life, All God's Dangers….

Corregidora is about the same kinds of sexual hatred that are now taking the form of sexual warfare in many popular, ideological novels by women. Jones avoids ideology, although her novel deals implicitly with racial and feminist issues. It is infused with black rage, but it is not an indictment of white America, not a woman-in-search-of-identity novel, nor is it a woman-as-sex-object novel—genre traps now so common that the novelist writing out of anger or confusion might easily fall into them. Jones writes as though exploring the depths of her anger. The impulse to write Corregidora obviously sprang from reactions against the treatment black women have had. But Jones knows that life is too complex for blanket judgments and easy solutions. Corregidora is, simply, about the awful complexity of one woman's life. (p. 27)

More than any other novel I have read Corregidora has a blues ache in its prose. Albert Murray's Train Whistle Guitar provided literary equivalents to blues phrasing but had no real blues feeling. Corregidora has the feeling and the ultimate release of a Billie Holiday recording.

Corregidora's prose has another quality unusual in prose by a woman: it's charged by a constant flow of sexual vernacular….

Jones uses the words naturally, the way they must be used if they are to mean anything in a novel. The four-letter words in Corregidora, used especially as aphrodisiacs or as taunts, seemed wrenched from the characters' guts. The effect is especially powerful in a novel written by a woman, because we are unaccustomed to a woman novelist who can use the language of sex constantly and not self-consciously.

Corregidora has weaknesses. Its 40-year time span is too big for the short narrative, and we're not quite convinced that Ursa ages. Some sequences are too spare…. The defects are major, yet the book works such a spell that you don't really mind them. Ursa's pain is so immediate, so basic and yet so multi-leveled, that Corregidora reads like a primal novel. (pp. 27-8)

John Alfred Avant, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), June 28, 1975.

"Corregidora" [is] named after a Portuguese seaman who, become a Brazilian plantation owner, compels his female slaves to sleep with him and then with others, for money. The history of the "generations" descended from this white progenitor is interspersed in italics as the novel's heroine [Ursa], a blues singer in a Kentucky café, tells her own history. (p. 80)

"Corregidora" persuasively fuses black history, or the mythic consciousness that must do for black history, with the emotional nuances of contemporary black life. The novel is about, in a sense, frigidity, about Ursa's inability to love…. The book's innermost action … is Ursa's attempt … to transcend a nightmare black consciousness and waken to her own female, maimed humanity. She does it, in the end, with a sexual act … combining pain and pleasure, submission and possession, hate and love, an act that says, in love, "I could kill you." This resolution is surprising but not shocking; one of the book's merits is the ease with which it assumes the writer's right to sexual specifics, and its willingness to explore exactly how our sexual and emotional behavior is warped within the matrix of family and race.

The men in this novel do not live except in the wonderful transcriptions of "sweet talk," of seduction's musical mumble, and the women retain a certain occluding severity. The simultaneous largeness and intimacy of Miss Jones' themes scatters her narrative; the characters come and go as casually as guests in Miss Stead's hotel [setting of "The Little Hotel"], and without the solidity of Miss Stead's aphorisms and local color. The minor-league Kentucky ghetto seems colorless and generalized; our retrospective impression of "Corregidora" is of a big territory—the Afro-American psyche—rather thinly and stabbingly populated by ideas, personae, hints. Yet that such a small book could seem so big speaks well for the generous spirit of the author, unpolemical where there has been much polemic, exploratory where rhetoric and outrage tend to block the path. The space her novel occupies, between ideology and dream, seems proper to fiction now, and to material of which sordid detail and sexual myth are linked aspects. [This novel builds] from [its] political convictions rather than toward them, and [leaves] us not with slogans but with a sense of witnessed life. (pp. 81-2)

John Updike, in The New Yorker (© 1975 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), August 18, 1975.