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The Boston Phoenix Self Help

A woman who's always leaving town must learn how to live in her own heart.

By Elizabeth Schmidt

FEBRUARY 16, 1998: 

THE HEALING, by Gayl Jones.
Beacon Press, 283 pages, $23.

Gayl Jones's new novel The Healing -- her first published in the United States since the critically acclaimed Eva's Man came out more than 20 years ago -- is a book about extraordinary powers and the needs of the ordinary self.

The book is told primarily in the tough, straight-shooting voice of Harlan Jane Truth Eagleton, an African-American faith healer who, sees herself as a mere vessel of God's power. In the first two chapters we learn that Harlan has roamed the world, visiting the afflicted dozens at a time, yet we get no flamboyant descriptions of the art of healing. And she herself cuts an unlikely figure, traveling around the country by public bus, wearing a bomber jacket and old blue jeans. Early on, she tells her audience:

A lot of y'all looking at me and just seeing just a ordinary woman, and asking y'allself how come a ordinary woman like me to be given a gift of the spirit, how come a ordinary woman like me to be given a spirit gift? Y'all thinks that just spirit gifts supposed to be given to extraordinary people, to extraordinary men and women, the kings and queens of the world, the princes and princesses. But that the point of them spirit gifts, the point of them spirit gifts, is that I am just a ordinary woman. I am just a ordinary woman, that is the point of the healing.

So it's surprising, given all this emphasis on the unexceptional, that the book's title stresses one singular healing.

The novel begins in Harlan's mind. She's on a crowded bus, en route to a small Southern "tank town" ("I think they call 'em tank towns on account of them water tanks, you know them water tanks where the trains stop to take on water") where she's scheduled to appear:

In the evening we'll go to the basement of the Freewill Baptist Church and then I'll show 'em my miracles and wonders. Of course they's always three kinds of people there: them that believes without questioning, those that believe only when it's themselves being healed, and those who could suck a cactus dry -- they ain't got cactus in this region, but the region I just come from, little town name Cuba, New Mexico -- and'ud still tell you it ain't got no juice in it. I tell y'all the truth. If I wasn't the one doing the healing, I'd be among the tough nuts.

At the actual event, she heals a young woman's skin rash, an old woman's spine curvature, a baby's chronic earache, a man's infertility (in private), and the town madwoman's delusions. More interesting than the miracles, though, is Jones's brief and uninflected description of them; the healings are reeled off in one long list.

The novel turns out to be less about Harlan's gift than about the fascinating story of her life before she became aware of her power. (This realization came when she healed a knife wound in her own chest.) After the opening healing episode, the narrative gives way to a collage of flashbacks; it is in the telling of them that the healing of the title takes place.

With each chapter, the book jumps from one time frame to another, chronicling Harlan's transformation from beautician in her grandmother and mother's Louisville salon to rock-star manager with a gambling habit to itinerant faith healer. We are able to connect the dots of Harlan's life by following the trail of people she has shrugged off and hurt: the grandmother and mother still in Louisville, the medical-anthropologist husband she left in Africa, a wealthy black German racehorse owner and his bodyguard Nicholas (who witnessed her first act of healing and speaks out in testimony about it), and Joan Savage, the rock singer whose trust she betrays by sleeping with the ex-husband Joan still clearly loves. Her life takes shape as a series of losses, a scattering of people left behind.

Of course, the person most in need of healing -- the person most hurt by Harlan's detachment -- is Harlan herself. Although Harlan customarily declares to her audiences that "I'm the one who healed my own self first," the release and happiness she experiences in a surprise reunion at the novel's close reveals how much pain she has nevertheless carried with her. In the end, "the" healing is revealed as an inclusive, gradual process of understanding what your own self hopes for -- a long journey from the mended chest wound to the satisfied heart.

Elizabeth Schmidt, an editor of the literary journal Open City, has written for the New York Times Book Review.

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