Bookstores crumble under Amazon’s hegemony. Book sections vanish into journalism’s glory days. And book critics fade behind a cacophony of online reviews.
But Oprah abides!
In the latest demonstration of Her awesome power, the talk-show diva smiled early on a debut novel scheduled for release in January. Knopf, one of the nation’s most prestigious publishers, immediately bowed to O’s wishes, more than doubled its print run and moved the release up a month — into the publishing wasteland of mid-December.
More power to her. So what if all the important best-of-the-year lists have already appeared (along with the National Book Awards)? Nothing is more valuable than that “Oprah’s Book Club” sticker on the dust jacket, which guarantees Ayana Mathis’ novel a vastly larger audience than it might have drawn.
Making the selection for what she now calls her Book Club 2.0, Winfrey invoked the name of the author of one of her earlier picks, Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, but that’s potentially misleading. Although they both write about the travails of African-American women, Mathis is a more accessible writer. Her prose style, polished at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, is clean and transparent, and though she manipulates time and chronology in sophisticated ways, she never leaves us, as Morrison sometimes does, in the dense mist of her private vision (see A Mercy).
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie falls into that growing tradition of books that hover somewhere between a novel and a collection of short stories, an unintended effect, perhaps, of the workshop setting that so many writers pass through nowadays. Like the chapters in Kevin Powers’ Iraq war novel The Yellow Birds, sections of Mathis’ book cry out for anthologizing, but their effect grows richer and more complex as they accrue.
The first chapter, set in 1925, is a fever dream of parental panic, a tale about the death of infant twins that suggests The Twelve Tribes of Hattie will be the sort of overwrought maternal tragedy that Winfrey is too often unfairly charged with favoring. In fact, Mathis has something more subtle in store. The next chapter picks up two decades later, and each subsequent chapter jumps ahead a few years, rotating through the lives of Hattie Shepherd’s many children — “the twelve tribes.”
Among the wonders of Mathis’ storytelling is her ability to orient us gracefully in each of these new settings. Some of Hattie’s children have wandered far, others have remained under her care, but none can escape the infection of her anger, her incurable resentment at her husband, “the greatest mistake of her life,” who subjects her to “these endless pregnancies.”
The first adult child we meet is 22-year-old Floyd, an itinerant trumpet player who has his pick of fans after every gig. The subject of this moving story is all its own, but Mathis quickly establishes themes that run throughout the remaining chapters. Despite his promiscuous treatment of women, what really troubles Floyd is his attraction to other men. Twenty years before Stonewall, this young musician has no way to comprehend himself except in the tropes laid down by his family’s church — as an abomination, a Judas. Far from home, Floyd feels “like a kite broken off from its string.” His increasingly reckless desire is “a thing too awful to be tolerated.” Denying his affections, “Floyd smelled his cowardice; he was all rot inside.”