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October1999
The Healing
by Gayl Jones

Bill:
There is so much to talk about in this month's selection on the book club that we don't know where to begin but we'll certainly give it a try. Hello again everybody and welcome to the Bookclub@KET. Our October selection is The Healing by Lexington native Gayl Jones. The story of Harlan Jane Eagleton, a faith healer, rock star manager, and beautician. And there is so much to talk about and I'll as for some help today from:

Cait:
Hey Bill.

Bill:
Rochelle.

Rochelle:
Hi Bill.

Bill:
Jonathan.

Jonathan:
Hi Bill.

Bill:
And Dave.

Dava:
Hi.

Bill:
This story actually begins with faith healing and ends with faith healing and a lot in between.

Rochelle:
Well I'll tell you this was a tough book for me, but I loved it so much I'm going to keep a copy of it in my office. There are books like John Grisham novels that are sort of instant gratification that you just read it and okay that was great and then you go on to the movie. And then there are books that are like peeling an orange or trying to taking the shells off the nut - you have to work at it. When I first started the book I thought, "This is kind of hard, I don't know if I'm really going to like this." But it was like peeling an orange and there were just all of these great sweet parts and rich parts and so by the time I got done I was so excited by all the different characters and by some of the passages of writing that are just beautiful.

This woman has a theme for her life, and a character for everything that she was. You said she was a beautician, and a faith healer, and there are people from each of those periods of her life that are like characters for their own books.

Bill:
If somebody uh walked up to you on the street and you had this copy and they said what's this story about? What would you say?

Jonathan:
Well, this narrator is a great storyteller. That's the first thing I would say. She is very compelling, the language is lively, fresh. It grabs you by the collar you can't let go, you can't put the book down. The writing is a very high caliber indeed.

What the story is about is - it's really a kind of autobiographical story in which this woman who has become a healer of sorts describes her whole career as a rock star manager. And importantly, describes all her relationships that she had with the rock stars. For instance she talks about her friendship with Joan the rock singer that she managed. She talks about her relationship with her husband, her relationship with Joan's husband.

And so on and so forth. So it's a very autobiographical story although it's not the case with every chapter. Not every chapter is her speaking because some of the chapters Joan seems to be the storyteller. She seems to be the narrator.

Bill:
The rock star.

Jonathan:
The rock star that is. So it's a novel with several narrators. But I think the dominant one of course, is Harlan Eagleton, the healer . And when you think about, "What is the story?" That suggests it's got a coherent beginning, middle and an end. I think that this novel plays a little bit to those conventions. It plays a little bit.

Rochelle:
Oh boy does it.

Jonathan:
Yeah, beginning, middle and an end.

Bill:
There are a lot of characters and they seem to be throughout and each one is drawn very carefully, very richly too. What do you have a favorite, Cait?

Cait:
Oh well I love Harlan Jane. I think she is obviously the central character of the book and I do love her as a character. She is on a long journey toward forgiveness, I guess if I had to say what it's about, it's about her journey, her personal journey toward forgiving those around her who have....

Bill:
The whole writing style too, is interesting. I think you were going to select something from the very first chapter in the way it sort of unfolds at the very beginning. If you are going to read a selection of that and then also tell us... is that the grabber that Jonathan was referring to you think?

Cait:
Well, it's interesting how this book... I'm like Rochelle; I had a hard time getting into this story at first. It's very complex and it's difficult to understand exactly who is speaking at all times and so it takes a little while to get into it. Yeah, in the very first page there is a little passage that I thought was really interesting, but it sort of examines how or shows how she goes off. It's a sort of stream of consciousness writing and it's a little hard to follow, but I thought this was a really good passage. She is on a bus. The story starts at the beginning and at the end of the story. It's very hard to understand.

Rochelle:
But before you read that... I think that's an interesting literary device that you don't see very often, when somebody is trying to do a life tale. People start at the beginning and then do flashbacks, but she starts at the very beginning and then sort of goes back. I mean she starts at the very end, where she is now, and then she goes back to the very beginning backwards. So when she is on this bus she is going to where she is now.

Cait:
Right.

Rochelle:
Which is what you were going to read.

Cait:
But its like how people's memories really do unfold I think.

Rochelle:
Yeah.

Cait:
And I think she speaks the way people really speak. This writer, Gayl Jones, has an incredible ear for dialogue and the sound of language. But okay, she is talking about her bus ride as she is riding into this town where she is about to do a faith healing. She begins the books as a faith healer. And she says she has opened a tin of Scandinavia, Spirit of Scandinavia sardines which you can just smell. (laughs) I think as soon as she opens this tin you can smell those. But she says most people likes sardines or like the taste of them, sardines but maybe she thinks it's to countrified. There is a woman sitting next to her who is not happy about the sardines. (laughs)

"Most people like sardines or likes the taste of them, sardines, but maybe she thinks its to countrified to be eating them sardines on the Greyhound bus even Spirit of Scandinavia sardines. Every since I seen that movie about the middle passage though they talked about them Africans coming to the new world being packed in them slave ships like sardines in a can. And even showed a drawing of them Africans that is supposed to be a famous drawing so that every time I eat sardines I think of that. Of course, I still likes the taste of that and I don't think she refused them sardines on account of that metaphor though. 'Cause I'm sure there is plenty of people eat sardines and don't think of that metaphor."

Bill:
So its a sort of stream...

Cait:
Yeah.

Bill:
As you said, the stream of consciousness.

Cait:
Yeah she goes...

Bill:
Writing and... Dava what do you think about the writing style. Was it easy for you to follow in the very beginning? Did you pick right up on it or did it take a while to sort of catch on?

Dava:
I picked up on the writing style. I loved it, I really did like the way it was designed. But the thing is it was very easy to get carried away in the dialect and the rhythm of these words and then I could read a page five pages then I was like uh what when on. It was fascinating. I was just caught up in the whole rhythm of it. But I really did enjoy it, because you get to see so much of the inside of the characters. Well I don't really want to uh make this seem like we are just taking turns reading passages, but I really wanted to read something that I enjoyed about this book. I loved all the female characters and I thought so many things they did were so typical of females in general which I can say because I am one. But...

Everyone:
(Laughs)

Dava:
There is a passage near the end where Harlan was talking to her ex-husband, who is Norvelle (I believe that is the way you pronounce his name). They had gone on a trip to Africa so Norvelle could do anthropological research on particular medicine women and tribal healers. So she was talking about this one witch doctor that had a wife who was afraid to leave him, afraid to cross him, because she was afraid he would use his powers on her. And so Harlan was telling her husband she thinks witches should marry wizards so they can both cancel each other out with their powers. But so her husband says you mean wizards should marry witches he asked. That way you think they would be equal suppose the wizard has more power than a witch. But they only want to marry harmless women I said, that's Harlan. No woman is harmless, he said and I think Gayl Jones does a really good job of getting inside these women's minds and showing how powerful they really are because I think all these women just are just a storm.

Bill:
So sometimes, on our program we have a tendency to talk about the stronger male or female characters that we have read about. What about the male characters?

Rochelle:
I loved some of the minor characters, one of them, (when you asked about the favorite character) although she is telling the story and this is through her eyes. I fell in love with some of people she talked about. Like Nicholas Love.

This bodyguard to this Afro-German exotic guy that she meets, knows horses, and they sort of get together for a while. But he has this body guard who must be like six or seven feet tall and can be invisible you know he's like she never even knew he was around but he was such a powerful presence at the first time she heals her. I guess we will just give it away. It's not a movie you know when you read this book.

Everyone:
(Laughs)

Rochelle:
The first person she heals is herself and he's there. So he all of a sudden is attached from that moment to that moment and he goes around and witnesses for people to let her know what she is saying she can do she can do. But you don't know how she can heal until almost at the end of the book because that's how far back you are going. It's not like a woman sitting on a bus having flashbacks to her life, it's a woman going back through her life. So you are like, well, what is the healing? What how did she heal? How did she? You know that it started with herself, but you don't know what happened; you don't know and then you finally get to this moment where it's almost nearing the end of the book and you see this is what the incident was where she healed herself. It was the person that she'd spent the most time with - this rock star and the altercation between them that allows her to heal herself and then to go out and heal other people. She introduces you to all these people backwards that she met through that time.

It is just the most amazing thing I have ever seen. And you do have to work at it. It was work but it was worth it. But I have to I...

Bill:
Another passage.

Rochelle:
I don't mind reading.

Bill:
That's all right.

Rochelle:
I think its great.

Bill:
That's good, yeah.

Rochelle:
But this wasn't the Nicholas Love passage, this was three other minor characters that you would forget instantly if it were a movie and they were just extras. But in Gayl Jones hands this is right after she is going to Martha Gaines' house. She is the woman that she is going to stay with at the beginning - you know, where she takes us and she gets off this bus to meet me at the station - three middle aged women in a Ford convertible. Martha is the driver and she's the slender one and the tallest. The others are proverbial stereotypes of plump church women, cotton print dresses, pillbox hats, oversized vinyl purses that dangle from their wrists or elbows, Zulinda and Josephine don't hide their disappointment. I know they are expecting me to be more impressive, look less like some ordinary common woman and more like a legend, more like a legendary healer, but people always say I don't look like my photograph. It's Martha who comes forward to meet me first bringing with her that odor of ripe strawberries and fresh ginger. The other women step forward to introduce themselves, they are staring at my blue jeans and bomber jacket worrying that I'll appear in church dressed so outlandish. Josephine gives me a look then holds out her hand. We shake hands then I shake hands with Zulinda but I know they are eager to test my healing powers. Josephine Wisdom is already telling me about her sinus problem and Zulinda Tate is already mumbling about her fear of cats. Right away I know these women, I can see them, I can see their noses up, and okay let's see what she can really do.

Bill:
Yeah.

Cait:
Uh huh.

Rochelle:
And they are not even important characters but you close the book and you remember them. So.

Bill:
A few pages later we do meet Nicholas for the first time. And then she begins to tell the story of Joseph, an interesting character, and really a significant character in some respects. I guess all of them are in some way because they have such an impression on Harlan Jane's life. Joseph is a horse buyer and trainer and apparently very wealthy, but there is also a sort of mysterious element to his life.

Jonathan:
Well, yeah I think that the character of Joseph is fascinating initially to her, as it is to us and one of the reasons for this is that Joseph is a black man who is a German. And you know she says that she never realized that they had black people in Germany and she says that he was therefore Afro-German, or was he German-African? She starts playing with the idea of how you describe him and she starts then exploring the idea of African history and how many Africans spread throughout the globe and the vast Diaspora. And I think she's really very interested in African-American history but seeing how that is connected to world history. For her he is a kind of interesting hybrid figure.

Because on the one hand he's a black man and he's African, he's descended from a Hotentot. But on the other hand he's a German and I think it fits in with a theme that's explored throughout the book - which is what is blackness? What is whiteness? How come some white people like Sicilians look black? And how come some black people have inherited a whole range of white culture and integrated that into their life? I think that the whole idea of culture, world culture, black culture, white culture, American culture, is something that she is nibbling at all along throughout the book.

Bill:
I think so to. And that's where we for the first time meet Nicholas, who is a bodyguard a bodyguard for Joseph the Black-German. But did you ever understand why he was the bodyguard? He had a lot of money - we know that Joseph had a lot of money, but there seemed to be other bodyguards all around some very mysterious characters that were always lurking behind trees checking to see if the phone was bugged, and all of that. Was that ever explained do you think in any way?

Cait:
I don't know I don't...

Rochelle:
I don't think it was necessary.

Cait:
(laughs)

Rochelle:
This guy was so ...

Bill:
Well not that it was necessary.

Rochelle:
This guy was so paranoid and so worried about these people supposedly coming after him that you got the sense that he had all these operatives but Nicholas was sort of his number one boy. So even if there were shadows this was the big shadow and the way she dealt with - not only the issues of global sort of race but contemporary racism - and when she did that, the whole passage about him being [invisible]...

I thought of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man and about how Joseph because he was an Aryan-German had to leave Germany, but then he'd go places and people wouldn't believe he was German. You know like his German was so rich and native that people who learned German in America didn't accept him: like oh yeah, right, you are really German, and so he wasn't accepted anywhere. So there were so many themes about that but there is a short thing about Nicholas where she was telling Joseph I've never seen this guy that you say is this bodyguard. And he said well, he was at the racetrack he knows how to be invisible.

Now, that's a virtue for a bodyguard, but I can't imagine that Nicholas Love who was one of the tallest men I've ever seen outside National Geographic or maybe on a basketball court I remember when I was in high school we had to read that book about the Invisible Man. I couldn't even imagine the invisible man himself being the invisible man though that was the name of the book. I told the teacher that I always felt to visible myself but someone else - one of them shy type girls said she felt invisible. But it was invisibility because of her shyness, not because of the ethos of race. And I thought "God Gayl."

Bill:
She puts it in a few short sentences. Anybody that that buys the novel or sees it advertised or sees it on our Web site is going to see the cover that you held up a few minutes ago and there is a woman and she has a turtle shell on. Now where does that come from and why all of that intrigue with with the turtle woman?

Cait:
Oh Harlan's grandmother - Grandma Jabady - is that how you say it?

Bill:
That's close enough for me.

Cait:
She owns a beauty shop in Louisville and this is where Harlan learns her beautician's skills and learns a lot about the world and life from her grandmother's stories. About these [stories], supposedly, (it's hard to understand I wasn't quite sure if these if the grandmother's tales were real or not but I think they were) she was a turtle woman in the carnival. Her grandmother was [a turtle woman] and she tells Harlan these incredible stories about that experience and about some of her cohorts - like the unicorn woman - who I thought was just great - who had a horn in the middle of her forehead. Supposedly glued who would tell all the men the ideal of true womanhood.

(laughs) Because she said men followed her everywhere in the carnival but anyway Grandma Jabady is a great character too. She really teaches Harlan about her life and because of her fascination with these stories, I think it has a lot to do with her own journey and her explorations of the world.

Bill:
Of course, we learn something about her mother at the same time. Her mother is always on the sidelines, sort of debunking everything that the grandmother [says].

Cait:
The voice of reason.

Everyone:
(Laughs)

Jonathan:
Yeah. She is.

Bill:
She's again a strong character and someone that Harlan also calls on.

Jonathan:
Well, I think that if you just go back to the grandmother, I think that she is really introduced as - on the one hand - as a turtle woman, but on the other hand as a storyteller. And I think that Harlan really feels she has inherited this from her grandmother.

And they are called turtle tales, animal tales, trickster tales, and I think that the novelist was very interested in the relationship between her own story that she's telling here and African folk tales. And you know, the whole thing you mentioned about African culture, African history, and the slave ships and so on, it's dense with African history isn't it in fact?

I think it was John Updike here talks about how she is a writer with a powerful sense of history in the blood. But, I think that Norvelle that goes to Africa, says that there is a certain kind of folktale, which is called a dilemma tale. It doesn't really have a clear ending. It doesn't really have a clear purpose it just explores a dilemma. Hopefully you learn something from it. And she herself says what have I learned from my own story. And I think that she is very much rooting herself in an African tradition.

But on the other hand. There are references to the idea of the "pickero" or the "pickera" - that is a Spanish word meaning rogue, and the great European tradition of novel writing of the picaresque is also behind the novel. And I think that the novel is rooted in two traditions with African and European. With the picaresque is a rogue who lives on her wits - the speaker lives on her wits. Speaks in a colloquial language by direct manner and so on and I think that the novelist is very self-consciously announcing its place in those two traditions.

Bill:
Well go ahead.

Rochelle:
I think she wrote sort of a dilemma tale because you get to the end and you are left with this mystery - who is this man you know?

Bill:
Who is the mystery man?

Rochelle:
When you get back to the beginning - well, let me go and find that. When you get to the very beginning and she heals herself first

Bill:
She is back as a faith healer at the very end of the novel.

Rochelle:
Right. "She healed herself first, then a horse, then a woman who looked like a turtle. And I have read testimonies of peoples that say she done healed them. Don't look to me like she could heal a flea girl come on let's go introduce them. And then there are all these characters and then she says to tell you the truth I'm not the sort of woman I'd imagined I had become. Preacher say that some people secretly prefer their flaws to their virtues because they mistakenly think that its virtues that make people the same. But flaws that distinguish them that give them character and she's going within herself and talks about this person arriving and says when I arrive he stands. They told me he would be Nicholas she is obviously at a faith healing and Nicholas is always the one who is there to introduce her pursy by talking about the first healing. They told me he would be Nicholas surely they hadn't asked him his name. They heard about the man who was my witness heard his name was Nicholas and simply assumed this was him. Surely they'd said Nicholas because everyone knew Nicholas was the one I always traveled with a man named Nicholas. But the man standing here is the last man in the world I expected to find or maybe the first man I'd hoped for."

Bill:
The end.

Rochelle:
And that's it, that's the last line you read and then you rush back through all of these things in her life and all of these different men. The rock singer's ex-husband, and Joseph, and Norvelle, and you wonder who was standing there and it's like.

Bill:
All right. Around the table, Dava who do you think it was?

Dava:
I think it was her ex-husband, Norvelle. Because he is the one character she could not hold. She left him in Africa because she didn't want to follow him following the medicine woman.

But I think it was because she felt she was powerless against him. All these other men were mesmerized by her everywhere she went, even in these tribes she visited in Africa. We had Dr. Criminal Detector, he was in love with her and just men everywhere. She had this whole aura about her. But I think she felt she couldn't hold her husband.

Jonathan:
Well I just have recoursed to that passage I referred to earlier. She talks about certain African folktales that never give you an answer. They only left you a dilemma. I think that's what you are left with I don't know there is an answer. I certainly don't know it. I don't know.

Bill:
This was rehearsed - you stole my theory.

Everyone:
(Laughs)

Bill:
But I always have another one. Rochelle.

Rochelle:
I'm with Dava I think it was Norvelle. The one person that she followed. Everybody else followed her, followed her scent, and followed her lead, and followed her sense of what they ought to be doing, and that was the one person that she followed and for him to come back at the end would have been too cool.

Bill:
Cait

Cait:
Yeah, I think it was Norvelle too. It's the only thing that really made sense. If you have to have an answer but I'm kind of with you [Rochelle]. Yeah.

Rochelle:
And its a girl thing. We want it to be him.

Everyone:
(Laughs)

Jonathan:
A happy ending. Could it not have been the father? Coming back from Korea?

Cait:
See that was my first thought, that exactly was because he clearly had to have had an effect on her life. I mean he just disappeared and stayed in Korea and never came back, married a woman never had.

Rochelle:
Like so many Korean vets did because they felt freer, the black vets felt freer then.

Cait:
That's what he said I had freedom here that I didn't have there.

Bill:
Well all of those are great answers I would think the most any of those that you that you mentioned logical might be, certainly, Norvelle.

Everyone:
(Laughs)

Rochelle:
A dilemma tale.

Bill:
But at the same time I think maybe its this brilliant technique that she uses. Maybe she doesn't even know or maybe she thought it was an amalgamation of all of these characters into one. It could have been a little bit of... we didn't even mention Jamie.

Bill:
Joan's husband that she also was familiar with and in certain ways...

Cait:
He was a character that didn't have much dimension to me in my opinion.

Rochelle:
He was a fling I...

Cait:
And I couldn't figure out why these two women were going round and round about this particular man.

Really this was kind of mysterious to me it was it seemed to be far beyond him. Whatever the dilemma with the actual a dilemma that you guys were referring to I mean you could consider that to be the fact that she slept with her with this woman's ex-husband when she shouldn't have done that.

Rochelle:
That had to happen for Joan to try and stab her for her to heal herself for her to have this life. If you believe in fate.

Bill:
There is so much - is it fair to say that the read of this is a challenge? But it's certainly one that that people should take hold of and follow through because of all of these things that we talked about today. The richness and in the conclusions. I think we are all pretty much on the side of thinking this was terrific.

Rochelle:
Oh it was worth the work.

Cait:
I think it is, I think it makes you look at yourself and how you live your life in some ways.

Rochelle:
And the people around your life like you know the people at the periphery and the people that you think are important are they really in the right positions.

Jonathan:
I think the book is magical and fantastic and she herself is a kind of magician. But she is also using... The language is just full of fantasy. But it's also just magical and a fantastic read and then the language is it fizzes and pops.

Rochelle:
Oooh Jonathan.

Cait:
And enlightening and educational.

Jonathan:
It's one of the great novels I think of the last ten years.

Rochelle:
I'm glad you said educational. I learned more just about contemporary history and culture and some of the things I hadn't thought about. I mean I am ready to go and pull stuff about the Hotentots because. Of course, I know they are black people

Rochelle:
First place finishers and fifth place finishers or Derbys for bets like okay who was fifth who was and she could do all of those like this woman is amazing.

Cait:
She was a she is a wizard I think. Harlan I mean you know the fact that she is at first a beautician, which I think has on its own....



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