The OF Blog: 2011 National Book Award fiction nominee: Jesmyn Ward, Salvage the Bones

Sunday, October 23, 2011

2011 National Book Award fiction nominee: Jesmyn Ward, Salvage the Bones

"Kilo!" Rico yells.  He grabs Kilo by the back legs and drags the dog toward him.  Kilo smacks open his lips as if he has just eaten something he likes, and China's leg comes free.  She is bounding toward Skeetah, her smile red like smudged lipstick.  The blood on her leg is a crimson garter.

"Fuck!  He don't even have to drag her," Jerome says.

Rico wipes at Kilo's neck until the blood looks less like a scarf and more like a necklace.  He studies his dog, who breathes so hard he sprays the ground with spit and blood, his nose to the earth.  Manny kneels next to Rico, whispers.  I know that whatever Manny is saying is showing the meanness in him, that he is Jason betraying Medea and asking for the hand of the daughter of the king of Corinth in marriage after Medea has killed her brother for him, betrayed her father.  Manny's mouth moves and I read, She ain't shit, ain't got no heart.  He looks at China when he murmurs, but it feels like he looks at me.

Late August 2005, with the impending arrival of Hurricane Katrina, portended doom for many millions of Americans who lived near the Gulf of Mexico, particularly in the Louisiana and Mississippi coastal plains.  In the days before landfall, Katrina swelled up in size until it seemed as though it would wrack the entire South with torrential downpours and devastating winds.  Although it died down in strength somewhat before making landfall near New Orleans, Katrina was so powerful that my native Middle Tennessee was under a Tropical Storm Warning for parts of two days.  The devastation left behind was horrific:  much of New Orleans under several feet of water after the levees protecting the below-sea level city collapsed; houses flattened or torn off foundations for around a hundred miles inland; millions left without homes, potable water, electricity, or belongings.  In some senses, it was akin to a Greek tragedy, with the gods gone crazy on those intrepid people who stayed for "the fun" of the storm and experienced a calamity.

Jesmyn Ward's second novel, Salvage the Bones, is set in coastal plain Mississippi those last days before Katrina tore up the land similar to what Camille did in 1969.  The ghost of Camille and the looming menace of Katrina lurk in the background of Ward's story until its final, devastating conclusion.  Salvage the Bones revolves around two African-American Mississippi teens, the first-person narrator, Esch, and her pitbull-raising brothe Jason, or "Skeeter" as he is known to most.  In the week leading up to Katrina's landfall (an event we are reminded of with small, passing comments throughout the narrative), we get a slice-of-life portrayal of their lives, filtered through Esch's frequent comparisons to Greco-Roman tragedies such as that of Jason and Medea and Psyche and Cupid.

Esch is a teenage girl, not the most popular or the prettiest, but intelligent and attractive enough to draw some attention.  She searches for love, only to discover that she is pregnant by someone who just so happens to have a girlfriend who is very jealous of any who might draw attention from him.  Her recounting of impoverished southern Mississippi life, replete with attempts at developing a strong social identity, the endemic fights (the somewhat graphic depiction of pitbull fighting might make some squeamish, but Ward provides unflinching insight into why such animal fighting traditions have lingered into the present in parts of the South), and the relationships between herself, her brothers, and their handicapped (and possibly alcoholic) father creates a vivid, memorable narrative tapestry.  Unlike several first-person narratives where only the narrator is fleshed out, several characters here, from Skeeter to Manny to Rico and even Esch's father, are well-developed.  Skeeter and his attachment to his pitbull bitch, China, forms a powerful secondary subplot to Esch's conflicted feelings about her pregnancy. 

The narrative unfolds neatly and eloquently all the way to the devastating conclusion.  The reader comes to understand better the world which Esch and Skeeter inhabit.  One may not like certain particulars about this social milieu, but Ward sets up a vivid, poignant tale through her use of Esch's narrative to recast coastal Mississippian life through the lens of an impending (and ongoing) social tragedy.  Despite knowing the general conclusion and having images already burned into my mind from seeing Katrina disaster footage, Ward's build up to this seemingly inevitable end made this tragedy all the more devastating because of the anticipation and growing dread over what surely must come.  Yet despite knowing this, the particulars were brutal, precisely because the characters were so well-drawn, and yet there was surprising hope as well. 

There are few weaknesses.  One element that might be jarring for certain readers is the idiosyncrasy of Ward's narrative.  Esch at times sounds too removed from the here-and-now of the immediate narrative, as if she were attempting to make her life into something else, something grander than what would be found in hardscrabble country fields and forests.  It does take some getting used to seeing a pregnant teen recasting her world in such a fashion, yet after a while, it does work, albeit after some effort at acclimating to this narrative style.  At times, the narrative focus seemed to be fuzzy, as Skeeter is such a fascinating character (and at the heart of it is his love and concern for China) that his plight threatens to overwhelm Esch's own.  Ultimately, however, the two threads do become more attuned to one another and each creates a powerful denouement.

Salvage the Bones on the whole was a cathartic reading experience.  The emotional buildup and release were steady and gradual at first, before the sudden emotional release and rebuilding occurred.  Ward's characters are half-realistic and half-tragic personages and although at times this division seemed a bit off, by the story's end the characters emerged as some of the strongest, most memorable that I have read this year.  Although I wouldn't rank Salvage the Bones higher than Téa Obreht's The Tiger's Wife or Julie Otsuka's The Buddha in the Attic, it certainly is worthy to be considered with each of these fine novels as worthy contenders for the 2011 National Book Award fiction prize.

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