Jesmyn Ward’s latest novel, “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” is a multivocal book, switching voices from chapter to chapter. But its moral anchor is a young boy named JoJo, a biracial child in Mississippi who is essentially without parents and who, at the age of 13, will still begin his monologue by gravely observing, “I like to think I know what death is. I like to think it is something I could look at straight.”
JoJo is, in other words, that cliché, an old soul. But as is somewhat unusual for novels about preternaturally observant children, Ward explicitly spells out for us why he is this way. JoJo’s mother, Leonie, had him young, and to a degree not often portrayed in fiction she is ambivalent, even hostile to, motherhood. She lives with her own parents and largely lets them parent her children. Her focal point instead is JoJo’s father, Michael, who is incarcerated upstate for drug-related crimes. He has been gone three years when the novel opens, but is about to be released. Absence has not diminished Leonie’s consuming passion for him. She still feels that Michael sees past her “skin the color of unmilked coffee, eyes black, lips the color of plums, and saw me. Saw the walking wound I was, and came to be my balm.”
Most of the book takes place during the car ride in which Leonie, JoJo, JoJo’s younger sister Michaela, and a friend drive north to fetch Michael from prison, and go back home again. Everyone is lost in daydreams, as people often are in cars, which helps expand from this potentially claustrophobic setting. But Michaela is sick, constantly vomiting, and JoJo must spend most of the trip acting as surrogate parent. He does not trust Leonie, not in the least, to care either for him or his sister. “She ain’t never healed nothing or grown nothing in her life, and she don’t know,” he says of his mother. Instead JoJo must reckon mostly alone with a world that is indifferent or hostile to him and one, too, that is seeded with ghosts of people he himself never met when alive.
She maintains a tricky balance: her story is moral-but-not-judgmental, political-but-not-polemical, sad-but-not-treacly.
To describe the elements of the book is to somehow make them sound like reductive clichés when they are not. For example, one of those ghosts claims to be a boy named Richie, who in life was incarcerated with JoJo’s grandfather, River, at the same prison that Michael ended up in. Richie, we figure out early on, has died in some horrible unspoken way. We also know that the death is tied up with River somehow, even as River recounts to JoJo a protective relationship toward the boy: “I remembered again how young he was, how his big teeth was still breaking through his gums in some places.”
There are writerly hands in which such a device, with all its clear invocations of the South’s racial history, might rapidly prove blunt and insufferable. But not in Ward’s, a 2011 winner of the National Book Award. She is as economical a writer, in her own way, as Hemingway, using only the necessary number of words. If anything, there are times the reader wants Ward to elaborate more, not less. There is something about her depiction of the working class, in particular, that seems lived-in, in a way that feels desperately needed in the cohort of Big American Books. A plot point here, for example, turns on the cost of the gas it takes to drive to the prison, a question that many novelists would not even bother to ask setting up a similar situation.
The climax of this book takes us to an encounter with the police that, after several years of headlines about police brutality, feels unnervingly familiar. Again, it would be easy for a lesser writer to make this a self-important set piece, dead as any flogged horse could be. Ward cracks the situation open like a mirror as her characters are pulled out of the car and all of them, even the child JoJo, are cuffed. A gun is pointed at him, one that he can’t ever again forget: “It is a tingle at the back of my skull, an itching at my shoulder.”
Of course there isn’t anything to be found in the car, per se, though Leonie is indeed hiding something from the police. But it is the sheer terror of the characters, the untenability of their situation, that really matters, not the facts at hand. And Ward is a master at evoking it. With first “Salvage the Bones” and now “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” she has proved herself to be an excellent writer of brief but socially and intellectually ambitious novels. One only wants to ask her to push further, and write even more.
Dean is the 2017 recipient of the Nona Balakian citation for excellence in book reviewing. Her book, “Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion,” will be published in April 2018.
Scribner: 304 pp., $26