Reflections on Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage
by Tahirah J. Walker
This book is full of longing. There are so many things I wanted from the characters and their interactions. There are so many things it made me want from the place we call America. And there are so many stories I long to know.
The cast of characters in this novel are positively stage worthy. Each of them has a presence and fullness that make you feel like you would recognize them on the bus or in the grocery store check-out line. They don’t all get narration duties but they all get a mark to stand on for the various scenes. They are all anchored and strong in their own rights. Jones saves the narration structure to clearly point to the plot for us. This is the story of a love triangle. An American Marriage struck me as the kind of book that would call on some of the things I have learned in my own two unions and maybe some of the others I have witnessed. I expected themes like fidelity, divorce, procreation, and sexuality to be included. Sure enough they were. But they were so much well, more. Like Celestial’s dolls, they were intricate and detailed. And like Olive I found myself surprised by how much they reminded me of my own lived experiences.
The same is true of the things I expected as part of any contemporary story outlining what it means to live in the United States with the ability to consider American as an idea that can be communicated. We know Jones has dismissed the notion of a monolith. She tells us this with the article at the very top of the title. This is but one of many kinds of American. And then she plunges us on a journey that moves thematically and literally through the soil under the structures that have been built here. From Big Roy’s impassioned burial of his beloved wife to the strength of the mighty hickory tree in an Atlanta yard and onto the contents of a stomach filled with guilt over the unintended human collateral of an individualist venture, An American Marriage investigates the soil and soiling that make up specific sites of American identity. In this novel we are reminded that for so many of us American dirt is not a cultural imaginary. We plant things in it and hope they grow. We bury people in it and hope they are remembered. We are continually surprised by what it holds.
Roy and Celestial move into their marriage like any couple moves into a new house. They look around and find unexpected things. They seem to love the idea of being homeowners but get blindsided by so many of the things this new marriage requires of them. As they begin unpacking things like why Celestial can’t abide women’s phone numbers in Roy’s pockets and planning to keep certain features like Roy’s desire to “sit Celestial down”, the couple begins to make a home in each other. Celestial is reckoning the Roy Othaniel Hamilton she heard years ago pleasuring another woman through a flimsy wall with the Little Roy who had come to truly desire only her. Roy was reckoning Celestial Davenport, whose name remains the same on both sides of his ring, with Georgia the name he gives her upon understanding that if he would add anything to her birth name it would be a recognition of the place that healed her and launched her dreams. Ironically, Roy’s goal of sitting his wife down, which is to say giving her the ability to do what she will, work how she loves, sweat with pleasure, and be free, is destroyed by the most ubiquitous foe of Black men in United States – incarceration. In his case it is for a crime he did not commit.
It is a sick twist. Roy finds himself being the one who is sat down and not at all with the kind of intention he had for Celestial, his Georgia. He is violently and apathetically sat down in a gross miscarriage of justice that drags on for years. Often he is left with the fleeting thoughts of his erstwhile dreams of upward mobility. They are crushed under the weight of loneliness, the musings of his cellmate and the ripping muscle tissue that accustoms itself to imprisonment. Incarceration is a term that literally refers to the amount of space a being is given. Too often I think we academize the word, make it scholarship or theory. Incarceration is the physical process by which people are told they are not allowed to be fully human. It is the holding pen before a horse race. Incarceration is the bull pen – not the pitchers’ one but the one where bulls are kept before they are either slaughtered or tempted in a wild spectacle where they will be shown to be brutes that must be tamed, handled, ridden or saved from themselves. In the climax of the story Roy, Celestial, and their friend Andre are forced to witness this truth. Jails, prisons, correctional facilities, penitentiaries; they are pens.
This is the part where I resist spoiling the book for you. I suppose there are some things here that may have been best left to your discovery but trust me, like marriage, there is so much more. With this book, Tayari Jones called me back to Gloria Naylor. Jones’ fictional Eloe, LA is kin to Naylor’s fictional Willow Springs, SC or GA in the same way that Aunt Sylvia and Gloria are kin to Mama Day and Aunt Abigail Day. The waiting period for the Davenport-Hamiltons’ love is kin to that of the Day-Andrews’ one. Miranda’s cooking is kin to Olive’s. Naylor’s magic and supernatural are kin to Jones’ irony and destiny.
Jones also called me forward to the high mark I etched on my life with a leap of pure faith. A leap I took in full trust that I would forgive the demise of my first marriage. Our story was kin to that of Roy and Georgia in that all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put our two hearts together again. It was an American Marriage. For a long time I felt like my hand was pressed against the glass that separated me from that relationship. Like I was holding it up or making sure its temperature did not change. We mourn relationships. We grieve what never came to fruition. But we also give thanks for what we had and for the effort. We are sad in the way that Roy is sad he never got to go on that trip with Mr. Fontenot. We recognize that missing it was likely due to a series of unjust circumstances. But eventually I let my hand go. I allowed it to hold other things. Just as Roy came to be grateful for the introduction to James Baldwin and a journal of his very own, I learned to be grateful for what was.
I am happily in a new American marriage. It is rooted in fertile ground. My husband is my partner is my friend is my great love. We have learned that the key to how we work is the constant examination of and tending to our structure. It’s a humble abode in an ancient tree. Our marriage shelters, lifts and grounds us all at the same time. We guard it and protect it from axes that might try to tear it down. We pray always for the necessary sunshine and rain. We take nothing for granted.
Please please buy An American Marriage from your local independent bookseller. Not sure about that? Check http://www.indiebound.org and use the finder. Surrounded by chains? Break free and order it online at this link.