The past couple of weeks I visited family in good ole West Virginia, and I read two books and just under half of another. The posts that follow are what I read while I was there.
Maybe James Baldwin’s well-known religious-themed Go Tell it on the Mountain was appropriate fare for my trip. This text is, there’s no other way to say it, heavy. With symbolism, with theme, with religion, with guilt. Everything. Even though it’s close to 300 pages, I devoured this in a couple days (even with obligatory family visits and other such fun stuff). It’s strange, because the style in which this book is written is antiquated, definitely modern – more words, longer sentence structure, everything. But something about it kept me reading.
That could have been a couple of things. For one, the material is relatable for me and compelling; for another, the language in this book is unparalleled. For instance, near the beginning, the description of the house in which the “main” character, John, lives:
“Dirt was in every corner, angle, crevice of the monstrous stove, and lived behind it in delirious communion with the corrupted wall. Dirt was in the baseboard that John scrubbed every Saturday, and roughened the cupboard shelves that held the cracked and gleaming dishes. Under this dark weight the walls leaned, under it the ceiling, with a great crack like lightning in its center, sagged. The windows gleamed like beaten gold or silver, but now John saw, in the yellow light, how fine dust veiled their doubtful glory. Dirt crawled in the gray mop hung out of the windows to dry. John thought with shame and horror, yet in angry hardness of heart: He who is filthy, let him be filthy still.”
Whew. There is so much even in this cutout of a longer paragraph. I mean, come on, “delirious communion” is fantastic: it evokes the religious even while speaking of dirt and delirium, insanity.
Which, coincidentally, is a great way to look at this book. There are three or four stories intertwined here. One is John’s journey up his own mountain of doubt and worry, of what he calls his sin, to come out on top of his faith; another is his mother’s journey from nothing to something; still another is of his father’s path from sin to pulpit. Each of these plotlines, and all the other minor sidequests, carry the theme of struggle with inner demons, with the Self.
The ending image of John’s Aunt Florence leaving him to the mercy of his father is ominous. John has “found” God, has allowed his faith to speak through his body in the strange ritual, but still you feel his panic as he watches Florence turn to walk down the street to catch her bus. Because the truth is he’s not sure he wants this life he’s chosen. He really only is trying to get back at his father, who John perceives has a deep hatred for him for no reason at all (really it’s because John is not his blood son, something John does not know), or make his father proud, or something along those lines.
There’s just so much guilt, and shame, and sacrifice, and fear in this book. Baldwin did a spectacular job of capturing exactly these feelings that strict religiosity cultivates.