D.T. Max reviews 'Paradise' by Toni Morrison

Published January 12, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

For me there are two Toni Morrisons. The first Morrison is intimate and republican. Her theme, most brightly handled in "The Bluest Eye," is family. The second Morrison is impersonal and imperial. Her theme, majestically handled, is history. The ironically titled "Paradise," like "Beloved," belongs to the work of the second Toni Morrison. Sentences roll on like breakers. The generations are born, till the earth and lie beneath. Sing, oh muse!

"Paradise" begins in 1976 in Ruby, an affluent all-black Oklahoma town with a population of 360, and flashes back to the men and women who founded the town's precursor, Haven, after the Civil War. Haven was decimated not by whites (there are hardly any whites in "Paradise") but by the Depression, leading the children of its founders to pick up and move 240 miles to the west and try again.

Nearly every townsperson gets a cameo in the course of this narrative of flawed nation-building. What I wouldn't give for a relationship chart. There are the town's macho leaders, the twins Deacon and Steward Morgan. There are their wives, Soane and Dovey. Both know tragedy. One has had two sons die. The other has had multiple miscarriages, each punished according to the sins of the husband. There is an insurgent outside preacher named Reverend Misner, who is keeping court with an independent woman and store owner named Anna Flood. They are the closest thing to common sense in the town. And there is a no-good lothario named K.D., son of Deacon and Steward's deceased sister Ruby, eponym of the town. Imagine a family reunion when you're not quite catching the names.

The action, though, is simple. As the novel opens, a woman lies dead in the front hall of the Convent, a former Catholic retreat just outside Ruby. The town's alpha menfolk have driven over and shot her, and now they are hunting down the house's remaining inhabitants. Connie, Seneca, Grace, Pallas and Mavis are the prey, female refugees who gathered in this safe place. They have done nothing wrong. Their crime is otherness. Their practices are vaguely occult, vaguely Sapphic and vaguely threatening to law and order. The men mistrust them. In short, they are killed because they can be slain without consequence.

And afterward Ruby is a little bit sorry. Morrison writes: "Bewildered, angry, sad, frightened people pile into cars, making their way back ... How hard they had worked for this place; how far away they once were from the terribleness they have just witnessed. How could so clean and blessed a mission devour itself and become the world they had escaped?" It would not, I think, be a leap to say there is a metaphor here.

There's also a helluva trick, a real coup de theatre, in these last pages. "Beloved" is no longer Morrison's only ghost story. But you'll have to read from the opening scene, when the guns go off, to the final one, when the chickens come home to roost, to figure this out. This is an extraordinary novel from a Nobel Prize winner confident enough to try anything.

By D.T. Max


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