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Book Review

Poignant Stories That Weave Fact, Fiction and Sly Humor

THE WAY FORWARD IS WITH A BROKEN HEART by Alice Walker; Random House $23.95, 224 pages

November 03, 2000|SUSAN STRAIGHT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Because Alice Walker's recent novels have been discussed largely in terms of their subject matter--"Possessing the Secret of Joy" dealt with the African custom of female genital mutilation, "By the Light of My Father's Smile" with paternal violence and family and sex in a Mexican setting--people forget how funny Walker can be.

From her first novel, "The Third Life of Grange Copeland" to her landmark, "The Color Purple," Walker acknowledges poverty and frightening intimate violence while leavening her stories with doses of sly, bracing humor.

Take "The Brotherhood of the Saved" from her latest collection, "The Way Forward Is With a Broken Heart." The characters in this story made me laugh so hard my face hurt. In it, a lesbian daughter returns to the South and her mother, who has been told by the religious men of the title that hell is the only option for sinners of her child's kind. Their conversations are priceless, never more so than when the daughter takes her mother, aunt and elderly female friend on a learn-about-sex field trip to an Atlanta mall.

" 'Oh, God,' said my mother.

" 'Oh, stop it,' said Miss Mary.

" 'It's probably not that bad,' said Auntie Fanny.

" 'Yeah,' said my mother. 'How bad can it be? I've seen childbirth.' She let out a sigh of relief.

" 'What's the name of this film?' asked Miss Mary.

" 'Deep Throat,' I said.

" 'Oh,' said my mother, brightening. 'It's not even about down there.' She sat up straighter in her seat and undid her seat belt."

Walker explains in her preface that these are stories "merging fact with fiction," which is often practiced, though not often openly acknowledged. "To My Young Husband," the story of Walker's marriage, is dark and stormy at times, didactic in places (as are most accounts of marriages now dissolved) and also very funny and poignant. The husband, a white, Jewish civil-rights lawyer, and the wife, a black writer-activist, had a typical young marriage centered around sex and themselves, pleasure and education. But they lived in Jackson, Miss., in the early '60s, when their very union was illegal, when they were surrounded by suspicion, the threat of violence and their own fears. Then they had a baby.

"The white nurses were soon captivated by your charm and good looks, casting you in the role of a contemporary Rhett Butler, but of course bemoaning the fact that you had chosen the wrong Scarlett."

Cutting between reality and fiction, Walker displays flashes of humor that illuminate their difficult existence and that of another woman, a black woman also married to a white man.

" ' . . . here in Jackson,' that woman tells us, 'if you want to see interracial couples, the place to do it is at midnight in this all-night supermarket. . . . Folks stare at us so much in the daytime, you start to feel your skin is crawling. . . .' "

The women who narrate these stories are sisters, lovers, lesbians and straights, living in Northern California, going back to the South, and trying to negotiate the betweens. In "Uncle Loaf and Auntie Putt-Putt" and in "Blaze," two sisters try to come to terms with their childhood and adult lives. The older sister has remained in the South and is often resentful of the little sister, who was a dreamer and escaped. These characters are vivid, exasperating, angry and yet real, never easily reconciled to the lives they had and have now.

"Cuddling" and "Charms" are told from the points of view of a man and a woman, and their Northern California lives are so different from the Southern stories that they seem jarring at first, but their ironic, nearly O. Henry-like fates make the narrators less perfect and more human.

Sex is often used by Walker to trace the betrayals and ironies and missed connections of human life. Underneath all these stories, sex swirls in undercurrents. Passionate, wild youthful sex that turns to dutiful married relations, and the specter of violent rape and forced interracial sex is always on the minds of the older black women, as compared to the lesbian interests of the younger narrators. Walker's explorations of sex and love always feel tinged by the reminiscences of characters like Auntie Putt-Putt, who recounts the story of her own grandmother, a slave raped for years by her white master, with many resulting children:

"She didn't love those children much, herself. She'd have died for them, but she just kept looking at them like they were strangers until they got grown. . . . You had a feeling of her thinking she'd somehow given birth to snakes. . . . Every time I look at them, she would say, I hear him say: Lay down. . . ."

The "standoffish quality" Auntie Putt-Putt attributes to all her female descendants is somehow resonant in Walker's stories, for all the characters who want to love but feel restricted by history, genetics and memory.

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