Jump At The Sun by Kim McLarin

By Peter Quinones March 03, 2018 0

At the nucleus of Kim McLarin's third novel is a concern with a seminal sociological theory, which we'll take a look at in a moment - however, lest anyone have the idea that this is a dry, academic type novel, let's enjoy this comet of observational exactitude:

"He said his name came from the Bible, the Book of Genesis; Cush was a son of Ham. She was impressed that he knew the Bible and that he didn't make up some stupid, sleazy explanation for his name, like "It means cushion, baby, because my love is so soft."

This pericope is a perfect, exegetic example of one of McLarin's real strengths as an author - she moves from being Whoopi Goldberg or Dave Chapelle or Richard Pryor on one page, in one paragraph, to an intellectual making her way through Durkheim, James Q. Wilson, Ann Morrow Lindbergh on the next. Plenty of authors attempt to unite qualities such as this, but what makes McLarin's writing memorable is that she combines these with a third trait -she has chutzpah in droves, a frankness about people, issues and feelings that really borders on the courageous. Jump at the Sun packs a real emotional wallop for this reason.

In the book New York in the Fifties by Dan Wakefield there's a photograph of the sociologist C. Wright Mills roaring off on his motorcycle, a surprising image that we could interpret, with some poetic license, as a symbol of the power of some of Mills' ideas. Mills' The Sociological Imagination advances the interesting hypothesis that individual facts, standing alone, don't mean very much. They have to be connected by a theory in order to make an impact. The way's McLarin's narrator Grace Jefferson puts it is

"One man's joblessness is his own problem - unless that man is black and fifty percent of black men in New York City are also unemployed One woman's homelessness is her own sad concern - unless the supply of affordable housing in a city has doubled to near nothingness. One child flunking a standardized test is the headache of that child's parent exclusively- unless sixty to seventy percent of the children in Boston public schools also can't pass the test."

Grace Jefferson is a wholly up to date woman, a PhD in sociology, mother of two young girls, married to a successful scientist named Eddie who STRONGLY longs to father a son, a desire that Grace really doesn't share; this situation percolates slowly throughout the novel, commencing when Grace takes the morning after pill (aided, in a hilarious exchange on the phone, by a Dr. Aranki) and gathering steam steadily until Eddie accidentally uncovers this behavior ( which she's tried to keep hidden from him) towards the end, where it coincides with another serious choice Grace has made).

Most reviews of this novel approach it from the standpoint of its being about motherhood, which it most assuredly is, but it is about much more than that too, and in my opinion it's quite worthwhile to check these less obvious areas.

Three sets of relationships of Grace's form the backbone of the story - her relationship to her mother and grandmother, to her husband and children, and to her friend Valerie. The relationships form a series of time mirrors around Grace - we see that in some ways she is exactly like the others, in some ways very different. McLarin takes the risk of brief departures from Grace's first person narrations, which form the majority of the tale, to offer third person accounts of episodes in the lives of Rae, her grandmother, and Mattie, her mother. One of the reasons this potentially artificial narrative experiment works is that it allows us to see similarities between Rae and Mattie that Grace cannot see - it gives us, as readers, a privilege that Grace, the main character, does not have. For example, in the very first scene Rae is sort of half-raped in a cotton field and when the man finishes with her "She pushed him off, pulled down her skirt." Years later, Mattie "put her hands against my father's chest and pushed" in an effort to get free. Obviously the pushes are literal, but they're symbolic as well. They're also part of the construction of the Sociological Imagination - if one woman wants to push her repulsive lover off herself so she can get free that's her own little knotty point, but if hundreds - thousands? millions? -have the same appetency it's something more. And Grace rejects Eddie in ways that have a similar spirit, the strongest expression of which occurs near the end, when she briefly participates in her sister Lena's insane road adventures. McLarin uses ths narrative technique to point up differences also - Grace is a bookworm, an academic, while Rae "at fifteen had long since given up on what good could be located on the inside of schooling books."

I don't have any doubt that with time the character of Rae will be recognized as one of the great characters in the fiction of this era. Facing the world alone from age fifteen on, she survives purely by her own wits and her ability to control and manipulate (we see a few scenes in which she scams Mattie out of money; it's clear that Mattie is not the only person she does this to). Somehow McLarin is able to give us an accurate portrait of this woman's entire life without ever really dwelling at great length on it anywhere ("She died as she had lived: solitary, defiant, nobody holding her hand.") In the beginning, as a child in the cotton fields just before World War Two, she is said to be able to pick as much as cotton as any man; at the end, on her deathbed, fighting her daughter and granddaughter, her weak blows are compared to snowflakes. (But she's spunky as ever - her persona cannot be depleted or diminished with age, as her physical body can.)

Whereas Rae lives her life essentially as a hustler, wholly selfish, not especially concerned with her family, Mattie works hard for her kids, getting a job with the US Postal Service and putting in a lot of overtime. In fact her husband, Cush - Cush Breedlove, notice - seems to present her with a choice, "The way we used to be... Just me and you. Nobody pulling on us, tugging on us all the time. It was sweet, wasn't it, baby?" Simply unable to step up to the responsibilities of being a father, he's coaxing her to bring their kids to her mother for a while. The irony is that, a young mother, Rae had run off with a man and left Mattie behind. More ironically still, Grace will come to to have these same feelings, that her daughters are "pulling on her." Mattie, correctly, is horrified of the idea of leaving her babies with Rae and Cush eventually leaves her.

Ostensibly Grace has everything - handsome husband with a great job at a major drug company, highly educated herself (she was let go, though, from the faculty at Duke University, denied tenure, and this weighs heavily), two great kids, beautiful house in Boston, much to be envied. From the beginning, as soon as we meet her, she has the thought that she could leave her family as her grandmother did. (McLarin's first novel, Taming It Down, also begins with the heroine in a disturbed state, looking for a psychotherapist.) What makes her feel this way? The short, uncomplicated answer is that her husband and her children are choking her to death, taking all her space. In the first chapter she is symbolically, accidentally, locked in the basement of the house. She acknowledges that the men in her mother's and grandmother's lives have not been very loving guys, and she is therefore confused by her own husband's loving, extremely social nature. He insists on trying to make her pregnant with a boy, against her wishes. I found it immensely interesting to compare the following two excerpts, the first from Grace herself, the second about Rae and her first husband:

"Really, what was my problem anyway? House too big? Bills too paid? Kids too healthy and well fed?"

"Hootie had treated her well - no beatings, no slipping out, no throwing her down anyway when she said no, and her never asked her to rise earlier or work harder or sweat longer than he did himself."

Notice in the second passage that what most of us would consider to be the barest minimum hygiene factors of a successful relationship, mere requirements for survival, she considers to be being treated well. What would she say if she found herself living under the conditions described in the first passage! McLarin implies, though she never really specifically states, that Rae and Grace share some dark, selfish, even Machiavellian impulses, some sort of soul-commiseration. Grace spends a good part of the novel wondering about Rae; in one scene she journeys to Providence from Boston looking for Rae, following a false clue she's gotten from an internet search that is of course a dead end. Her last meeting with her grandmother in this world only becomes possible when Mattie joins in, when the three of them can be present. The two personalities of Rae and Mattie - the battler who would forsake even her own children and the martyr who exists only for her children - in the end are combined in Grace. (Mattie, now that her own kids are grown and gone, serves as a foster parent in her sixties, unable to get the need to be a mother out of her system.) Grace has got the emotional DNA of both of the older women.

In my opinion the real pith of the novel occurs in the relationship that takes up the least amount of space and time, and this is that of Grace and her new friend, Valerie. The two women mirror each other in many ways, are what is called in screenplay writing classes the reflection characters, both African American mothers in their thirties with kids (three boys in Valerie's case), women of education. They meet in the park where they take the kids to play. Although the outer circumstances of their lives seem quite similar, their interior wiring is very different. Whereas Grace is nervy, on edge, confused, and in the grip of existential dread, Valerie is very nearly a fully actualized person, almost monk-like in the Zen peace of a harmonic life. Her husband and her children are still creatures of wonder and fascination to her, something that Grace can no longer imagine. This is Grace on her husband:

"Back in the early days of our relationship, back when we still had the energy to explore each other's inner life... "

"I'd be reading on the living room couch or at the computer doing work or at the kitchen table contemplating space and Eddie would say something and the irritation would just crawl up my back. I would think: Can't you just leave me alone?"

On her children:

" But to have children is to understand the impulse toward child abuse. As a parent, you will say and do things to your children that you would never say and do to anyone else- because society would not allow it; because no one can rattle you the way your children can... You will be horrified at the way you behave."

At one point, when her kids ask her why they have to do a certain thing, she is horrified to hear herself give the response she herself loathed as a little girl: "Because I said so!" The beauty of the passage that follows should be read in the text, within the flow of the story, so I won't quote it here. As dissatisfied in marriage and parenthood as Grace is, Valerie is satisfied, but when two unexpected events rock Valerie's universe badly we come to see the lives of Rae, Mattie and Grace very differently, and Grace's brief acquaintance with Valerie teaches her a lot. And it teaches us as well. In a way the entire story is an investigation of how Valerie was able to get to an emotional haven that Grace is not, and why, and if Valerie's evident happiness is - or can even in theory be - real.

There's so much in the novel I haven't gotten into - Grace's thoughts about some of her in-laws, her observation of young black teenagers on the streets of the Providence ghetto, her memories of one of her beloved professors in college, her sister Lena's ability to sense emotional truth about Grace's daughter where Grace can't, and that's just a sampling. McLarin has a sharp, sharp lens. If someone ever asks you to recommend a good story about generational relationships, here it is. Or about motherhood, or marriage, or modern feminism, or strong women, or the application of intellectual ideas in fiction. Jump at the Sun works with a wide net, and it catches everything.


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