Thursday, July 04, 2013


Toni Morrison’s 1992 novel Jazz is a book that I really enjoyed at times.  But, at the same time, there were portions of the novel I could barely force myself to endure.  It is that uneven.

Jazz, mostly set in 1926 New York City, is the story of Joe Trace, a 50-something-year-old man whose marriage is not what it used to be.  There is a general sense of optimism now in the city’s black community.  The Armistice ending World War I is already seven years old, and the future appears bright for everyone brave enough to have traded life in the rural South for what the City has to offer.  Joe, though, is not content. 

When his job as a door-to-door beauty product salesman for the Cleopatra company brings him into contact with Dorcas, an18-year-old neighborhood beauty, Joe makes his move.  But only three months later, when Dorcas unceremoniously dumps Joe for a younger man, he cannot accept it and shoots her dead in a crowded room.  Joe’s wife Violet, cheated of her chance for vengeance, brings a knife to the open-casket funeral where she does her best to disfigure the corpse.  But life goes on, and Violet will find herself almost inadvertently helping her husband through his grief.

Toni Morrison
Morrison’s mysterious narrator reveals most of this in the book’s first six pages (the book jacket reveals the rest), and uses the remainder of the book to fill in the details.  Through a series of flashbacks, the author tells the individual and joint stories of the central characters, going back one or two generations in some cases to remind the reader just how closely linked to the days of slavery the residents of 1920s Harlem still were.  But, as Morrison points out in the following passage, the City gave its residents hope for a better future:

         “The wave of black people running from want and violence created in the 1870s; the ‘80s’ the ‘90s but was a steady stream in 1906 when Joe and Violet joined it.  Like the others, they were country people, but how soon country people forget.  When they fall in love with a city, it is forever, and it is like forever.  As though there never was a time when they didn’t love it.”

Bottom Line:  Jazz is a highly atmospheric novel filled with many truths about the human condition – a novel that vividly brings 1920s Harlem to life.  Some of the generational flashbacks, however, poignant as they may be, are overwritten and heavy-handed enough to obscure, rather than reinforce, Morrison’s overall theme.  Jazz is still worth a look, but it is not one of Toni Morrison’s best efforts.  

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