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Monologues and Mambos : SUGAR CAGE, By Connie May Fowler (G. P. Putnam's Sons: $19.95; 285 pp.)

March 15, 1992|Elizabeth Cook-Lynn | Cook-Lynn, a Visiting Professor at the University of California, Davis, teaches Native American literature courses and edits the native- studies journal, The Wicazo Sa Review. Her first novel, "From the River's Edge," was published by Arcade (Little/Brown) this year

In the easy, conversational style of the rural South, Connie Mae Fowler's first novel, "Sugar Cage," creates benign early-Keillor-like characters whose voices verbalize homespun monologues about luck, tragedy, family, love, disappointment, widowhood, war, voodoo, fear and hope. Fowler uses the demotic devices of what has come to be called the oral traditions, i.e. the first-person narrator, the words and cadences of poor black/white speech patterns, the Bible and voodoo to describe the entwined lives of two black women and two white families, the Looneys and the Jewels, all of them struggling at the edge of poverty, in the sugar-cane fields of rural Florida.

Inez Temple, a black hotel maid who by chance meets Rose Looney on the latter's honeymoon in 1945, begins the series of monologues by telling the reader she never really believed she had "the same ability to see as Mama and Granmama," but what she finds out in her first encounter with Rose and throughout the 25-year span of their convoluted lives is that she is a visionary that the world needs.

This black prophetess introduces the plot when she stirs sugar into a glass of water as an antidote to the queasiness felt by newly pregnant Rose, tells her, "You need to settle down, quit liquor and late nights," looks at the sugar in the bottom of the glass, sees "the bars glittering like white sand under the sun" and knows it is a "sign of Mrs. Rose Looney's future. A sign that would tell me she was going to let love eat her up." Inez calls Rose Looney's affliction "that sugary curse," a metaphor for the inescapable destiny of her own human condition which, as the story progresses, applies as well to the field workers in their "sugar cage" and everyone else caught up in the sweet prison of their own lives.

While the character of Inez Temple is irresistibly dear, and while it is she who makes the rather contrived "Sugar Cage" metaphor work, there is something at once banal and disturbingly false about her as well. She loves cleaning an old mansion belonging to Mayor Edgar G. Collinsworth, for example, because it "possessed a legacy." Of slavery? one asks, disbelieving.

Later, "I had the radio on, listening to some young Negro man from New York City talk about economic empowerment," she says. "My bad eye was awfully bothersome and my good eye was sore from doing the work of two. . . . I wasn't adjusting well at all to this half-blindness. So I sat there listening and shelling . . . all with my eyes closed. I was almost done with the shelling when it happened. The young man on the radio was saying something to the effect that us Negroes had to take control of our own economic and political destinies. And right out loud, as if I was talking to somebody, I said. 'You know that's right.' But I'd no sooner got out those words as when I didn't hear the radio anymore. And the dark blankness behind my lids disappeared."

Suddenly Inez has a vision. She sees a strange sight, a swamp filled with mysterious animals, a pretty dark-skinned girl surrounded by lighted candles that burn away her skin. The dark girl becomes a bird, a heron, which rises with a thousand other birds from a field...she sees a white boy standing in the field.

"And then, just as fast as it started, it shut off. No more fields or bird women or joyful boys. I was back in my little apricot-colored kitchen. The young man wasn't on the radio anymore . . . they'd switched to playing some kind of bebop music. I shook my head. I said, 'Missy, those pills that doctor gave you for your eye is making you see things.' "

Inez tells us she had a sign that "the good doctor" Martin Luther King was going to be "in trouble" in Tennessee. When he is murdered, she simply "shut my curtains to keep out the violence." There is something disappointing in Inez's lack of recognition of her own power. It seems purely incidental to her ESP powers that this story takes place in Florida during the height of the Civil Rights movement. Martin Luther King Jr. is murdered, Robert Kennedy is shot in the head in a hotel kitchen, and young men are going off to Vietnam to be brutalized, but Fowler's characters seem largely unchallenged by these monumental, historical events.

The novel offers a collage of otherwise fascinating portraits of ordinary people. Rose's adored but unfaithful husband, Charlie, spends his days polishing his car, the Black Beauty, his nights at the Bonfire Lounge; after he's turned over a new leaf, he dies in front of a TV set. Her alienated son, Emery, moves in with a barefoot Haitian cane worker named Soleil Marie Beauvoir who "with a face full of sweet confusion" asks him what Emancipation Proclamation means. He impregnates her and leaves for Vietnam.

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