Gayl Jones' work reflects a consciousness of place, a black woman with a message.Featuring an introduction by Natasha Tarpley, White Rat is an exemplary collection of Jones' work, the idiomatic speech, the folk wisdom, the simplicity and straightforwardness of those who live from one day to the next, their experiences familiar and accessible.
Writing in the dialect of the streets, Jones’ characters are the invisible, the disenfranchised, those who struggle for dignity in a world that gives them no identity or respect at a level of existence where just making it through another day becomes a goal in itself.
The title story, “White Rat,” speaks to the woes of a black man light enough to pass for white and the complexities that attend his dual existence. Lost in a no-man’s land where he must stick with those who know him to stay out of trouble, he is raising a child alone until his wife, Maggie, returns, pregnant with another man’s child.
A small family drama plays out in “Jevata”, where Mr. Floyd is an observer of domestic disharmony, the would-be boyfriend who never has a chance as the fifty-year old Jevata, infatuated, takes an eighteen-year-old man into her home. Watching the family troubles evolve, Floyd remains steadfast even as the nubile young man deserts Jevata. In this mix of sexual ambiguity and dysfunction, Floyd remains passive, unable to bring closure to the longing that relentlessly plagues him.
A brilliant take on sexuality and the loss of innocence, “The Women” considers how children absorb everything in their environment, good and bad, learning from the adults who are too busy or self-involved to notice. Watchful and curious, the little ones learn the facts of life from those who live in their homes, small, sad beneficiaries of neglect.
In the short but intriguing “Legend”, a black man’s body is left hanging beneath the bridge where he was hanged, his story forever on the tongues of those who cross from side to side, a legend lasting longer than the dead man’s life. A retarded boy, Ricky, is the subject of “Coke”. Now fifteen, Ricky recycles empty cans for pocket change, trapped in a waiting game until he reaches eighteen and his mother can legally turn him over to the state mental institution, where he will remain for the rest of his life, as unwanted as on the day he was born.
With natural rhythm and idiosyncratic speech language, Jones reveals lives made humble by hardship, an unsophisticated world defined by need, routine and grinding poverty. In this place, alienation and mental illness are commonplace; Jones speaks with the voice of those who exist in an economic limbo, race and sexuality a subtext, speaking truth without pretense, moving through time because they must.