I’ve never lived in Mississippi, but my mother was born there in 1908. When I was a kid growing up in the 1950s, she took my brothers and me “home” from Houston to Rockport, near Hazlehurst, several times. In my memory, only my mother is at the wheel, my father not in the car. Perhaps he couldn’t take time off work. Perhaps deep-South Mississippi was too foreign for an Iowa boy.
At one point in Jesmyn Ward’s road trip novel SING, UNBURIED, SING, a “tusked wild hog, big as two men and covered in black fur, darts from the woods and springs across the road, as light on its hooves as a child.”
Ward’s writing is vivid enough to transport any reader into this scene, but for me it was more than real. On the route through Louisiana and southern Mississippi, we often saw these terrifying beasts along the roadway. One time we had to halt on the blacktop, trees on both sides draped in Spanish moss, a wild boar the size of a propane tank in the middle of the road, his white tusks curled alongside his dark snout. He was unmoved by my mother’s honks or the shouts we offered through the windows of the station wagon, afraid to roll them down more than an inch. No other cars came from either direction. We simply waited until the animal decided to move.
Ward’s lyrical writing has been compared to Faulkner and Morrison by reviewers far more credentialed than I. Like Morrison and Faulkner, however, for me her prose is sometimes too fanciful. Her spinnings into abstraction, sometimes furrowed my brow and made me want to speed ahead to find something concrete—of which there was much. It’s not that I mind abstract storytelling, I just want the pretty words tied firmly to meaning, and sometimes Ward lost me in the ether.
Never a quitter, I always forge on to the last page of any novel I pick up to find out if the bad guys are punished and whether the characters I care about come out okay. In the case of SING, UNBURIED, SING, Ward satisfied me. Young Jojo’s dignified Black grandpa, “Pop,” the book’s moral center, though he loses much, stands as firm and reliable at the end as at the beginning, guiding Jojo toward manhood while his parents flounder, addicted both to drugs and each other.
I highly recommend SING, UNBURIED, SING, and plan to read Ward’s earlier novel, SALVAGE THE BONES, also set in Mississippi, in the near future.