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Book Review

Family and Secrets Interlace in New York's West Indian Quarter

THE FISHER KING by Paule Marshall; Scribner $23, 222 pages

November 23, 2000|PAULA L. WOODS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Over a writing career that has spanned six decades, Paule Marshall has produced five novels and a short story collection that have both defined and illuminated the Caribbean immigrant experience in the United States. From her coming-of-age novel "Brown Girl, Brownstones" in 1959, through 1991's "Daughters," her writing has been the subject of ongoing scholarly inquiry, earned its author several literary awards and, given her output of about a book a decade, created a core readership that is patient out of necessity.

The wait is over with "The Fisher King," Marshall's first novel since "Daughters." Set in 1984, "The Fisher King" begins with the Paris-born Sonny Payne and his guardian, the American expatriate Hattie Carmichael, arriving in central Brooklyn for a concert held in honor of Sonny's grandfather, jazz pianist Sonny-Rhett Payne, who had died 15 years earlier in Paris. The younger Sonny had been abandoned as an infant and was adopted by Hattie, who has become for him the center of his uncertain universe, his "fathermothersisterbrother." The two arrive in the U.S. virtually penniless, lured by a healthy check from Sonny-Rhett's brother Edgar and by the tribute itself, which young Sonny hopes will dispel the nightmares he has of his grandfather's mysterious demise and Hattie believes is long-overdue recognition of her dear friend's talent.

But before the tribute, Sonny must pass muster with the divas of Macon Street--grandfather Sonny's mother Ulene Payne, a reclusive West Indian matriarch living in No. 301, and grandmother Cherisse's mother Florence Varina McCullum-Jones in No. 258, an overly made-up and relentless snob. Each great-grandmother has her own reasons for wanting to lay exclusive claim on the boy, reasons that go back some 40 years to lower-class Sonny-Rhett's courtship of the beautiful Cherisse and their abrupt departure for Paris. Sonny's Uncle Edgar, who ostensibly wants to pass on his wealth and privilege to his great-nephew, is also not immune to this possessiveness. "Nothing's pure," he tells Hattie. "Nothing's wholly selfless."

Secrets, both expressed and implied, propel the narrative and cause Hattie to search the facades of the houses "as if trying to tease out what had happened within their walls during the thirty-plus years she'd been gone." Author Marshall gives the reader just that perspective, providing rich grounding in Ulene's West Indian immigrant experience as well as the travails of Florence Varina's family, black Southerners who fled to the relative safety of the North.

As much as "The Fisher King" mines these veins, the novel hits pay dirt in its flashbacks to the jazz scene in 1940s New York and Paris. Here our guide is Hattie, Sonny-Rhett's most trusted critic and a secret-keeper herself. It is through her memories that the reader senses the excitement and magic of the time and Sonny-Rhett's eccentric talent. "He hunched closer to the piano . . . and with his hands commanding the length and breadth of the keyboard he unleashed a dazzling pyrotechnic of chords--polyrhythms, seemingly unrelated harmonies, and ideas-fresh, brash, outrageous." In recent years that have seen fine jazz novels by Jack Fuller, Stanley Crouch and John A. Williams, Marshall's voice is perceptive and enriches the landscape by showing the women behind the music and the price one man's calling exacts from himself and those he loves.

Ultimately, the weight of "big people talking" is felt most acutely by Sonny, who draws fortresses to protect his dead grandfather and fancies himself a fisher king of Arthurian lore. The battle over the boy's future, which erupts in a climactic scene between Edgar and Hattie, makes "The Fisher King" a triumph of subdued power and hypnotic grace that seems much longer than its 200 plus pages.

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