FEBRUARY 6, 2018
WE FIRST ENCOUNTER Celestial and Roy, the couple at the center of Tayari Jones’s intricate and compelling fourth novel, An American Marriage, not yet two years into their titular union. It’s a partnership that has already seen its share of bumps and slides, those recognizable issues most new couples face: Babies. Fidelity. Careers. Responsibility. Honesty. Jealousy. Insecurity. Devotion. But it’s also one imbued with love, sweetness, support, and comfort.
Celestial, a wild-haired artist who found her medium in exquisitely fashioned baby dolls she dubbed “poupées,” is the product of a comfortable middle-class family from Southwest Atlanta. A transfer student to Spelman College, she first met Roy, the only son of a steady working-class couple from the small Louisiana town of Eloe, in the Morehouse College dorm room of her childhood friend Andre, who is Roy’s best friend. When Roy and Celestial met again, he was a rising executive in corporate America and she was a struggling artist working a side gig as a waitress at a New York City restaurant. This connection stuck. They fell in love. They married. And after a honeymoon in Bali they settled in Atlanta, where, with the help of Celestial’s father Franklin, an inventor, and savvy mother Gloria, a maven in the world of black Southern elites, Roy took joy in supporting his family while his wife pursued her artistic vision, one that they shared.
They are the epitome of a new generation of young black professional couples in the South. Lives entirely of their choosing are laid out ahead of them like an ancestor’s dream.
All that changes when they drive to Roy’s hometown of Eloe to spend Labor Day weekend with his parents, Big Roy and Olive — not a happy prospect for Celestial, who is not to her mother-in-law’s taste. But Celestial is more unsettled than usual on this trip, as if sensing it will be the fateful day their married life cracks in two. And when Roy suggests, “Call your boy, Andre, then,” to have her nerves eased, even the reader hears a disconcerting ping, like a wrong key hit at a child’s music recital — a warning from experience that this is not a wise thing to suggest to one’s nervous spouse. The spirit of unease that hangs over Celestial the entire day at her in-laws’ comes to fruition that night after an argument with Roy at the local motel sends him out to get some air, an excursion that results in a chance encounter with a fellow guest at the ice machine.
Before the night is over, sheriff’s deputies are busting into the couple’s room, pulling them out of bed, and arresting Roy for the rape of the woman at the ice machine. Despite money, a competent lawyer, a picture-perfect family, and his innocence, Roy is tried and sentenced to 12 years in a Louisiana prison.
Those are the facts of An American Marriage. However, as in every truly masterful story, the facts only tell part of the tale. Jones has dared to go deep. And we readers have to go with her. This is a novel crafted, rather than told. Carefully considered and examined. The author has done the heavy lifting. It does not surprise me that, in her acknowledgments, Jones thanks her writing colleagues for their long-term support as she developed it. The work feels as if it has been lovingly toted from room to room. Worked and reworked until it hummed. It’s not a story that comes in a torrent, like a river under a bridge in rural Louisiana. Rather, it moves with the excruciating, inevitable trickle of a prison toilet.
The novel — told in chapters through the voices and letters of the main characters, whose regrets seep between the lines — unfolds seamlessly and naturally for the unsuspecting reader, whose perspectives on life and marriage, responsibility and survival, the challenges that break us and the ones that make us strong, are about to be disturbed, if not subverted. It asks the “Big Questions” that loom in the middle of the night when our squabbles have grown into hardened grievances and life has given us a backhanded slap, suddenly sending everything spinning out of our control and shaping it into something we never envisioned or imagined: What is marriage? What comprises a long-term relationship? How do two people weather the storms — or even trickier, how do three? What is fidelity? Responsibility? Commitment? How inescapable are the factors of race and the State, of history? How powerful is the sway of a white woman’s word over a black man’s life, and over the lives of all those he holds dear? It’s all there in this slyly intricate novel that explores not just the intersectionality of race, class, gender, and culture, but also the tenuous, unavoidable intricacies of family — intimate, extended, and newly discovered.
The letters that Celestial and Roy exchange during his time in prison are both intimate and distancing. But something is irrevocably broken in their struggling long-distance marriage, caught as it is in the tentacles of injustice, bitterness, loneliness, and fear — quite a burden for a lifetime vow not quite two years old. Like way too many young black men caught in a system that seems rigged against them, Roy wants loyalty and reassurance along with the freedom he deserves. Like way too many young black women expected to weave “Black Girl Magic” out of harsh reality, Celestial finds herself lonely, overwhelmed, questioning — and pregnant. She writes to Roy, who is desperate for a child but fighting an overwhelming sense of hopelessness, after an early face-to-face visit:
When I told you I was pregnant, it wasn’t good news, not in the way it should have been. I hoped the idea would stir you, bring you back to this life. You did come back, but only to moan into your tight fists. Remember your own words: You can’t have it. Not like this. This is what you said to me, your grip on my wrist so tight my fingers tingled. You can’t tell me that you didn’t mean what you said.
Ambivalent at best about motherhood so soon in her marriage, Celestial immerses herself in her art, creating sweet baby dolls for children to play with and collectors to treasure instead of real children with a husband she knows is slipping further and further away from her as he serves his unjust sentence two states and more than 500 “highway miles” away.
As Jones crafts tissue-paper-fragile scenes of Roy and Celestial’s still-new marriage, she offers us snapshots of black men growing old and alone in prison, black men growing old and becoming widowed in loving marriages, men who expect women to “care after them” forever. A skilled writer, she creates women hiding the vagaries of a former life and women facing seemingly biblical choices. Each layer, each scene feels like another tear in the ragged fabric of the long-distance lovers’ long-term commitment.
At the end of the graveside service for his beloved wife Olive, still his sweetheart after decades of marriage, Big Roy dismisses the Latino gravediggers and grabs a shovel to cover the open grave himself with pile after pile of rich, fragrant “Black Belt” dirt. This indelible image of a black man in his 70s sweating through his funeral clothes, refusing help from his incarcerated son’s best friend and wife, is a picture of devotion that sends Andre and Celestial to the nearest bar as they realize that can’t continue to fight the love they share. The vodka-and-O.J.s flow, and lives trickle on.
An American Marriage disproves Zora Neale Hurston’s adage, “You got to go there to know there.” Jones, an unmarried African-American professor who is currently the Shearing Fellow for Distinguished Writers at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, seems to know the intricacies of the institution of marriage as if she were a lifer. But this will be no surprise to fans of her earlier works Leaving Atlanta, The Untelling, and Silver Sparrow, in which Jones proved she knows character. Even better, she knows family, friends, adversaries, strangers, officials — she knows, as we say in the South, “Folk.”
And the folk in this novel will have readers replaying scenes from their own lives measured against the characters’. For this reader, survivor of a 40-year marriage, the novel evokes memories of distant quarrels, choices, and joys experienced over the years, all the way up to current challenges and gifts of companionship. Would my spouse and I have survived such a trauma to our marriage, which has endured its share of (voluntary) work and family separations? I even had marriage-related dreams while reading Jones’s evocative work.
With the signature grasp of the complexities of her Southern hometown — the centerpiece of the New South, a city too busy to hate — that she exhibited brilliantly in her earlier works, Jones creates layer upon layer of black culture so authentic that familiar readers will be writing stars in the book’s margin. For example, Jones drives home Celestial’s personality by having Roy compare her favorably to an earlier date, a proper young Atlanta woman who surprised him by flashing a “silver .22 with a pink mother-of-pearl handle” at an Urban League gala to show her displeasure at his possible infidelity — the very definition of “bad and bougie.”
Jones masterfully explores her themes not just through the central marriage in the novel, but also through the marriages of Roy’s, Celestial’s, and Andre’s parents. These all buck and scrape and nestle against each other, each story line leading, somehow, to loss. This heaviest of human themes permeates the novel. The loss of a partner due to happenstance, death, infidelity, separation, attrition. Loss of sexual fulfillment. Loss of love. Loss of freedom. And the loss of control over one’s life. These are universal themes, but Jones makes the circumstances of these stories so particular and so human that the novel evokes all the feelings.
The novel, which begins almost leisurely, is like a roller coaster that gains speed and intensity through turn after turn of information and backstory, illuminating all our human frailty and complexity along the way. Jones intends to give the reader all the information she needs to parse the question that has engaged a generation of scholars, bloggers, thinkers, journalists, book clubs, and coffee klatches: are the cards just stacked against marriage for black folks in this country? Jones explores this question with wisdom and generosity and ends on such a satisfying, organic note that the ride lingers. Painful and poignant, it’s a ride worth risking.
Tina McElroy Ansa is the author of the novels Baby of the Family, Ugly Ways, The Hand I Fan With, You Know Better, and Taking After Mudear. She is completing Secrets of a Bogart Queen, a work of nonfiction.