Her latest, a slim volume entitled “Love,“ has big shoes to step into, given that it follows the likes of “Paradise,“ “Song of Solomon,“ “Beloved,“ “Jazz“ and “The Bluest Eye,“ to name a few from Pulitzer Prize-winner Morrison, a professor of humanities at Princeton University. Big shoes, indeed.
She‘s such a remarkable writer and a near force-of-nature in terms of the literary world that as I‘m writing this, this critic is wincing. I‘m doing so because it‘s my humble, but honest opinion (and that‘s why they pay me those big Express bucks) that while mediocre Morrison is usually superior to the best work by many others, it‘s something else when she falls somewhat short of her own glorious talents.
“Love“ is by no means Morrisons strongest effort to date, and readers have the right to expect it to be, since she‘s that rare sort of writer with the potential to continue to top themselves with each successive work. Still, it has considerable merit and the things that Morrison does well - and there are many of them - resonate with elegance and grace, as opposed to the power and fire she can conjure.
On the first page of the novel, we meet narrator Sandler Gibbons, who quietly sets the stage for bringing together a cast of characters who live in the once-popular, ocean-side resort community of Up Beach:
“The day she walked the streets of Silk, a chafing wind kept the temperature low and the sun was helpless to move outdoor thermometers more than a few degrees above freezing. Tiles of ice had formed at the shoreline and, inland, the thrown-together houses on Monarch Street whined like puppies. Ice slick gleamed, then disappeared in the early evening shadow, causing the sidewalks she marched along to undermine even an agile tread, let alone one with a faint limp. She should have bent her head and closed her eyes to slits in that weather, but being a stranger, she stared wide-eyed at each house, searching for the address that matched the one in the advertisement: One Monarch Street. Finally she turned into a driveway where Sandler Gibbons stood in his garage door ripping the seam from a sack of Ice-Off. He remembers the crack of her heels on concrete as she approached; the angle of her hip as she stood there, the melon sun behind her, the garage light in her face. He remembers the pleasure of her voice when she asked for directions to the house of women he has known all his life.
“You sure?“ he asked when she told him the address.
She took a square of paper from a jacket pocket, held it with ungloved fingers while she checked, then nodded.
Sandler Gibbons scanned her legs and reckoned her knees and thighs were stinging from the cold her tiny skirt exposed them to. Then he marveled at the height of her bootheels, the cut of her short leather jacket. At first he‘d thought she wore a hat, something big and fluffy to keep her ears and neck warm. Then he realized that it was hair-blown forward by the wind, distracting him from her face. She looked to him like a sweet child, fine-boned, gently raised but lost.
“Cosey women,“ he said. “That‘s their place you looking for. It ain‘t been number one for a long time now, but you can‘t tell them that. Can‘t tell them nothing. It 1410 or 1401, probably.“
Now it was her turn to question his certainty.
“I‘m telling you,“ he said, suddenly irritable-the wind, he thought, tearing his eyes. “Go on up thataway. You can‘t miss it ‘less you try to. Big as a church.“
She thanked him but did not turn around when he hollered at her back, “Or a jailhouse.““
The protagonist of “Love“ is Bill Cosey, the late, great owner of Cosey‘s Hotel and Resort, once “the best and best-known vacation spot for colored folk on the East Coast.“ As the novel begins, we learn that the resort has long been closed, but now houses two feuding women - his widow Heed and his granddaughter Christine. They are part of an extended group of women who are completely obsessed with Cosey, including May, Junior, Vida and L. Each one of them had a very special bond with Cosey, and he played an irreplaceable role in their lives, as well, as being a lover, parent, spouse, guardian, employer or friend.
While love is at the center of each relationship Cosey had with the women, there is a dark side to each of their tales, and certainly to Cosey himself. Secret forces are at work everywhere, spinning webs of deceit that serve to link everyone more tightly to each other, and creating layers of complication and suspicion. In this universe, love is an all-consuming appetite that keeps the past alive and the future at bay.
The conflict between Heed and Christine is pivotal to all the action. When Junior Viviane, fresh out of “Reform, then Prison,“ becomes Heed‘s companion and secretary, it serves as the catalyst for unresolved emotions and tensions from the past to collide with the delicate balance Heed and Christine are fighting to maintain in their snake-house existence. There aren‘t six degrees of separation here, but actually four, and Morrison casually, but deliberately goes about the business of uncovering the past in a series of lyrical flashbacks. Violence and brutality coexists with moments of great tenderness and passion, and through it all, the author‘s incredible manipulation of words and ideas serves to present a canvas against which the supporting characters come steadily into focus while leading man Cosey remains as elusive as a shadow.
One can ultimately argue that the sum of the parts is greater than the whole, but the work is still distinctly Morrison‘s. If there‘s anyone shoes shes forced to fill it‘s her own, and the double-edged sword - the irony and the greatness here - is that they can‘t be occupied by anyone else.