In his wonderfully cranky Nobel Prize acceptance speech, William Faulkner exhorted his fellow writers to create from the heart, not “the glands.” Address the immortal truths, he instructed: “love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.”
The novelist Jesmyn Ward pinned this speech above her desk. Her memoir and three novels — produced in less than a decade — feel hewn from these grand Faulknerian verities. Not for her the austerity and self-conscious ironies of so much American fiction; her books reach for the sweep, force and sense of inevitability of the Greek myths, but as translated to the small, mostly poor, mostly black town in Mississippi where she grew up and where she still lives.
Her characters are tested not by the gods but by other elements, no less absolute in their pronouncements. “Salvage the Bones” (2011), her National Book Award-winning novel, follows a family caught in Hurricane Katrina (which Ward and her family narrowly survived). “Men We Reaped” (2013), her memoir, is a requiem for five black men, including the author’s brother, who were lost to murder, suicide and addiction.
However eternal its concerns, “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” Ward’s new book, is perfectly poised for the moment. It combines aspects of the American road novel and the ghost story with a timely treatment of the long aftershocks of a hurricane and the opioid epidemic devouring rural America.
Jojo, the reluctant hero, is a classic Ward protagonist: a tender, ungainly teenager — easy prey. His mother, Leonie, is deep into drugs, and his father, Michael, is languishing in the Mississippi State Penitentiary, also known as Parchman Farm. It has fallen to Jojo to care for his little sister, with help from his maternal grandparents. (Michael is white, and his family wants nothing to do with his mixed-race children.)
These are Jojo’s burdens. His gifts include a devoted grandfather and an ability to communicate with animals and ghosts that runs in the blood. His mother can see the ghost of her slain brother — but only when she’s high. She gets high a lot.
The story is set in motion when Michael is slated for release from prison. Leonie, that walking catastrophe, decides to collect him (and perhaps cook a little meth along the way). She hauls her children along, and they unknowingly pick up a mysterious hitchhiker: the ghost of a 12-year-old boy, a former prisoner at Parchman.
In her memoir, Ward chided herself for being…