John Christopher is a prominent heart surgeon, a professor at Howard University, and the head of a high-achieving black family in Washington, D.C. Camille, musical and with a keen interest in literature, has stayed home to rear their three daughters and cultivate their spacious garden, furnished with a greenhouse and a swimming pool.
As for the three daughters, growing up in the '70s, they have had a rougher passage over rough times. Eva, a hippie and drugged out for a while, has achieved a settled if precarious stability. Cynthia Jane, aloof, has become a nun. Pat, most deeply agitated and with a child born out of wedlock, kills herself.
Still and all, you might think, a story for our times. Less usual, a story for our times about a black family so exceptional as to have a story that might as well be that of a fashionably troubled upper-middle-class white family.
But out of this framework, which would seem designed for a novel of contemporary life and mores, Carolivia Herron has written a swirling and terrifying epic. It works out a vision of national damnation rising, as inevitably as the damnation of the House of Atreus, from America's original sin of slavery.
On a blurred edge between prose and poetry, "Thereafter Johnnie" is told in a shifting blend of voices. They belong variously--sometimes, the shift is made within a paragraph--to John Christopher and Camille, to Eva, Cynthia Jane and Pat and, most centrally, to Pat's daughter, Johnnie. At the end, the voice will move ahead a half-century or so from now, and lodge in a Mexican woman chanting the legend of the destruction of black and white America, and of the family on which the legend centers.
Johnnie, the granddaughter of John Christopher, also is his daughter. Tormentor and tormented, seducer and seduced, abuser and abused, he was Pat's lover. Incest, and the obsession that links father and daughter and that finally draws Pat to kill herself, are the terrible curse of this seemingly sheltered family.
It is not the original curse, though. It is a cause of tragedy--of Pat's death and perhaps of the fact that Johnnie is mute until she is 14--but it is also tragedy's byproduct. One of the flashes of Herron's compelling vision is the blurring of tragic causes and tragic effects.
Clearly, as the father, John Christopher is the abuser. Yet some of the book's most stunning and incandescent scenes describe Pat's efforts to seduce him through her late childhood and puberty until, finally and reluctantly, he succumbs. Beneath this level is another: When she was 2, John Christopher had caressed her seductively, abusively. "Your finger put a fire on me," Pat will recall.
But the chain of abuse goes far back and far beyond. Where it goes is the book's theme and its fundamental strength. The strength is sometimes enhanced by luminous and visionary writing, and sometimes weakened by incoherence and a pumped-up lyricism and envisioning.
Herron, author of a forthcoming scholarly work entitled "The African American Epic Tradition," finds the original abuse, the original curse, in slavery. That this is not new is no defect. A longstanding truth hardly can be new. Yet, despite "Thereafter Johnnie's" weaknesses and indulgences, Herron makes it both true and new for her readers.
Black women have been the most obvious victims of slavery--sold and used for sex and procreation as well as manual labor. But rape did not violate the women only; it robbed black men of part of their manhood. Throughout history, not just African-American history, humiliated women have tended to endure more strongly than humiliated men. The men tend to disappear; the women remain. And in America, after being violated themselves, black women had to watch their men disappearing.
John Christopher, a proud and brilliant doctor succeeding in a white world, should be an image of empowerment. Herron uses incest as the sign of how the heritage of slavery and abuse has turned this empowerment--literally, his potency--in and against itself.
Told as legend, the family's story goes back into slave days and the lineage of abused women ancestors. There are no men ancestors. Herron's theme expands. The concubinage of white masters and black slaves was more than personal and social inequity. Its logic was genocide; blackness would disappear.
The author stresses the point by carrying part of the story up to the year 2000. There has been an annihilating war between the United States and the heavily armed Third World; some African Iraq, if you like, without the mistakes. White American men have been decimated in the fighting; black men, considered untrustworthy, were not used. And so--a brilliant reversal that makes the point--black men are permitted to couple only with white women. Black women are once more robbed of their men; it becomes illegal for them to marry their own. Whitening--genocide--continues.