February 8, 2018
Will Gayl Jones Ever Publish Another Novel?
by Michael Barron
The history of modern literature is filled with tragedies that befall writers — suicides, murders, mental breakdowns, works thrown in the fire, you name it. That should give us as much cause to lament the works that could have been as to express gratitude for the books that do get written and survive in publication. In the last quarter of the twentieth century, the African-American novelist and poet Gayl Jones was a literary force, a stylist in full command of her voice, a black writer who didn’t cater to a white readership. So singular and affecting was her work that in high school, Jones’s English teacher persuaded a fellow Lexingtonian named Elizabeth Hardwick to mentor her. Toni Morrison, her onetime editor, recalled in an interview with the New York Times being floored after reading the manuscript for Jones’s 1975 debut novel, Corregidora, noting that “that no novel about any black woman could ever be the same after this.”
As far as I can tell, Jones hasn’t published a single work since 1999. A strange and incomplete Wikipedia page doesn’t give many clues as to her literary disappearance, but one doesn’t have to snoop through too many Google search results to find a smoking gun. A New York Times investigative feature by Peter Manso begins with one of the more baffling and brutal fates to befall a writer: “On the evening of Feb. 20, 1998, less than a week after the much-heralded publication of her first novel in more than 20 years, Gayl Jones, 48, was handcuffed and removed from her Lexington, Ky., home by the local police. Inside the two-bedroom bungalow, her husband lay bleeding from a self-inflicted knife wound.”
From that startling beginning, Manso tells the story of Jones’s early rise to acclaim, hampered by her overbearing and mentally unwell husband, Bob Higgins. It’s a history too bonkers to try and summarize here, but the point is that Manso effectively challenges the notion that the “brilliant black writer whose comeback had been blasted by her husband’s death” was entirely the victim of a mentally unstable spouse. In 1983, Manso notes, “Jones had resigned from the university and given vent to her long-seething rage: ‘I reject your lying racist [expletive], and I call upon God. Do what you want. God is with Bob and I’m with him.’” From that time, and aside from a single reading Jones gave at the University of Kentucky in 1992, she and Higgins were to remain hidden from the public, “united in the conviction that a racist society had doomed them to repeat the violent history of their forebears.”
It’s been twenty years now since Manso’s piece ran, and Jones has remained out of the public eye more or less the whole time. That’s understandable, but the general decline of interest in Jones’s work is less so. Manso’s two-decade-old piece is still the second result when you Google Jones, sandwiched between her Wikipedia and Amazon pages. The novel Manso mentions is The Healing, Jones’s penultimate book to date, and arguably the one meant to put her back on the map (in an already crazy year for Jones, the work became a finalist for the National Book Award later that fall). Her only work since was 1999’s Mosquito. Since then, radio silence.
It took Jones twenty years to write The Healing — her previous novel, Eva’s Man, had come out in 1976 (three books of poetry and one of short stories came out in the interim). Is it possible the cycle has come around again, with wounds healed and a new novel in the offing?
This may be wishful thinking. Last year, Tom Eblen of the Lexington Harold-Leader reported that Jones, a native of the city, was being inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame, and that after a letter went unanswered, Neil Chethik, the executive of the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, had had to pay a personal visit to her front door. To his surprise, she answered.“She was very gracious,” he told Eblen, “and said that while she could not attend she gave us permission to honor her.” In her place, Nikky Finney, a National Book Award-winning poet, agreed to read from her work.
Otherwise, Jones remains reclusive. Her books are in print, and she may be living off the royalties. And she has her fans: almost every day, someone tweets about her brilliance. Manso speculates, but doesn’t confirm, that Jones had been writing about Higgins. Whether she’s still coming to terms with his death—and whether that emotional process might produce writing—remains unknown. What is clear is that an astonishing writer has disappeared from view, resigned to self-imposed immurement. Possibly she has lost her genius; hopefully not. We know, from all the prodding into his fiercely guarded private life, that J.D. Salinger continued to write long after he continued to publish. It’s possibly that if we were to intrude as deeply into Jones’s private life, we would hear about secreted stacks of writing.
But even if Jones hasn’t been producing any new material, it’d be a great time for some renewed interest in her work. What’s already out there is pretty spectacular.
Michael Barron is an editor at Melville House.