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September 6, 1977

Books of the Times

To Ride the Air to Africa

By JOHN LEONARD

SONG OF SOLOMON
By Toni Morrison.

Sometimes you get lucky. Of the 20 years or so I've spent pretending to be an adult, only five have been devoted to book reviewing. And yet, I was permitted to review Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita" for my college newspaper; to review Joseph Heller's "Catch-22," Doris Lessing's "The Golden Notebook" and Gunter Grass's "The Tin Drum" for a radio station in California; and to review John Cheever's "Bullet Park," Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude" and Maxine Hong Kingston's "The Woman Warrior" for the Times. That's luck. These are special books. About them, a reviewer tends to feel touch and possessive -- as if, together, they constitute much of what I know, and think, and to give away their magic to strangers is somehow to give away my advantage in moral and esthetic realms.

Toni Morrison's "Song of Solomon" belongs in this small company of special books that are a privilege to review. It may be foolishly fussed over as a Black Novel, or a Woman's Novel, or an Important New Novel by a Black Woman. It is closer in spirit and style to "One Hundred Years of Solitude" and "The Woman Warrior." It builds, out of history and language and myth, to music. It takes off. If Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man" went underground, Toni Morrison's Milkman flies.

Macon Dead Jr. coming of age in a fair-sized Midwestern city, is called Milkman because he was seen suckling at his mother's breast long after boyhood. His mother, Ruth, is almost catatonic from libidinal repression. His slumlord father is impacted with anger at his wife, his son and his murderous past. Milkman's sisters, Magdalene, called Lena, and First Corinthians -- like his aunt Pilate, and her daughter, Reba, and Reba's daughter, Hagar -- have been christened in the family tradition of picking a name at random from the Bible.

Names are Magic

The magic begins with the naming. For Milkman's flight, Pilate is in fact the pilot. Pilate -- born without a navel ("a stomach blind as a knee"), bootlegger and witch, with her brass box for an earring and her bag of human bones -- is the strongest character in Toni Morrison's fiction so far. She is the repository of everything everybody else in the novel has forgotten or denies. Seeing her through Milkman's eyes is nice narrative strategy; she would otherwise overwhelm the book.

It is also a daring strategy on Miss Morrison's part. Unlike her first two novels, "The Bluest Eye" and "Sula," most of "Song of Solomon" is written from a male point of view. (All three novels, by the way, have very little to do with the white world. It is there, of course, a condition and an oppression, but she won't be deflected from the truths of her characters to score a political point. They must work themselves out according to what they know and feel. They are not allowed merely to be victim.) So it's into the bars and barbershops, and out on the streets at riot-time, and inside Milkman's head for sex.

All this, in tone and detail, is fine. The talk is a marvel of bravura and nuance. There's a deadly fight, with broken bottles, that in the piling up of insults until the explosion is a small masterpiece of craft. We understand exactly why the moody Guitar is disappointed in his friend Milkman, and why Guitar joins a group of assassins, and the different sorts of greed that possess the two. And black men may be relieved to hear that Miss Morrison isn't as hard on their case as, for instance, Ntozake Shange has been.

This grit, though, these street-smarts and signifyings, are just the start. Even in the city, with its "absence of control," Southside, "where even love found its way with an ice pick," there are in the crazy night rose petals and ginger-sugar, "this heavy spice-sweet smell that made you think of the East and striped tents and the sha-sha-sha of leg bracelets . . . the way freedom smelled, or justice, or luxury, or vengeance." Somewhere "there was system, or the logic of lions, trees, toads and birds," hills where Pilate will die and Milkman fly.

Milkman goes South, thinking he looks for secret gold, actually plunging into family history and racial memory, into dream and myth, walking with his city shoes where the rocks talk and the sweet gum trees are full of bobcats and Sugarman and you can ride the air to Africa.

From the beginning, when Robert Smith of the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company can't fly on the day Macon Dead Jr. is born to the end, when Milkman "fleet and bright as a lodestar" wheels in the night sky, Toni Morrison is in control of her book, her poetry. Out of the decoding of a children's song, something heroic standing out of possibility and leap of faith; out of quest, the naming of our fathers and ourselves. he first two-thirds of "Song of Solomon" are merely wonderful. The last 100 pages are a triumph.

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