Agitating for the Abolition Of Us-Versus-Them

Paradise, by Toni Morrison. Knopf, 318 pages, $25.

A rigorous thinker intent on melting rigor, Toni Morrison writes with precision and discipline so as to subvert discipline and precision. She floats an ark of opposites just to show how sterile dichotomy can be. I had a professor once who wondered whether Sula (it remains for me Ms. Morrison’s most perfect novel) isn’t an inside-out and backward way of saying “us all.” I doubt it, but I think “us all” is a bull’s-eye summary of her distinction-dissolving art.

Her new novel begins: “They shoot the white girl first.” The sentence bristles with implied opposites, race and gender the obvious elements, but also the many ranged against a lone individual, a victim and her aggressors, life and its possible extinction. Thanks to the last word, the present tense of the sentence’s blunt verb is balanced between past and future: “They shoot the white girl first.”

By the end of Paradise, when you know everything you need to know about who “they” are, who the white girl is and why shooting is involved, black and white, boy and girl, shooter and target, are no longer paired neatly in antithesis. Blended and blurred, dichotomous terms gain in significance what they lose in fine definition, especially community and exile, the alpha and omega of Ms. Morrison’s theme, which goes something like this: No haven can be heavenly, no home smack of paradise, if it begins with exclusion or lives by the rules of triage: some in, some out, some damned, some saved. The author is agitating for the abolition of us versus them.

That’s a tall order for a novel of no great length, and the ambition of the enterprise can be a burden to the reader. Several sermons are preached in these pages, a war of words waged over slippery concepts like love and tradition. It’s never Ms. Morrison pounding the pulpit. But one senses, looming behind the altar, the majesty of her moral purpose. The weight would be crushing if her talent were not equal to her purpose and her ambition.

Paradise is the story of a town and a house. The house is 17 miles outside of town and seems at first to be everything the town is not. The time is early- to mid-70′s, with many flashbacks to the 50′s and 60′s. The climax, foretold with a glimpse of carnage in the first chapter, comes in July 1976, when a group of townspeople sets out to massacre the inhabitants of the house.

Ruby, Okla., is an all-black settlement founded in 1950 by nine families descended from the settlers of another black town called Haven, which had withered during the Depression. Ruby is a fortress of righteousness. A patriarchy dominated by twin brothers called Deacon and Steward Morgan, it is a prosperous, peaceable community. The town’s amateur historian is troubled by Ruby’s “blood rules”; she thinks of the “intact” nine families as “eight-rock, a deep, deep level in the coal mines. Blue-black people, tall and graceful, whose clear wide eyes gave no sign of what they really felt about those who weren’t eight-rock like them.” Persecuted by whites, shunned by lighter-skinned blacks, the people of Ruby have isolated themselves from the white world and embraced reverse racism. They will not tolerate “racial tampering,” they scorn the “impure.” They were excluded; now they exclude.

Men from Ruby (nine of them) carry out a bloody raid on a house they call the Convent. A mansion shaped “like a live cartridge,” it was plunked down in the buffalo grass by an embezzler who went to prison before he could enjoy his ill-gotten gains. In the mid-20′s, the building was transformed by Catholic nuns into a school for Indian girls. In the mid-50′s, the school closed, but a couple nuns stayed on, selling baked goods and produce from their garden: “They made rhubarb pie so delicious it made customers babble, and the barbecue sauce got a heavenly reputation based on the hellfire peppers.”

The last of the nuns dies just as Ms. Morrison’s story gets going. The Convent then becomes a shelter of sorts for women, most of them battered and abused, “traveling resolutely nowhere,” drawn perhaps by the mysterious powers of Consolata, Connie, who was a servant to the nuns and now lives on in the house that has been her home for more than 40 years. The Convent is not a coven; Connie is not a witch, but she does have access to a “gift” she thinks of as “in sight”-as in “seeing in.”

There is no structure to life at the Convent, no rules, no authority. It is an anti-community, a kind of anarchist’s paradise. Women in distress go there, but so do men. One of the men of Ruby, driven to drink by the town’s racist “blood rules” (he had foolishly hoped to marry a “pretty sandy-haired girl from Virginia”), spends weeks at the Convent drying out. Years later he returns with the posse, gun in hand.

The attack on the Convent is scapegoating, pure and simple. Ruby no longer coheres the way it did in the lean years after it was founded. The young are restless; they lack respect-as a member of the older generation puts it, they have “too many reasons for wearing thin shoes.” In time of crisis, it’s always tempting to pick on “other folks,” especially if rumors of witchcraft are in the air: “Nothing like other folks’ sins for distraction.”

Ms. Morrison doesn’t like to point the finger. Blame paves the way for banishment. Like Yeats’ Crazy Jane, she cries, “Fair and foul are near of kin.” A chapter midway through Paradise opens with a sermon that sounds mighty convincing: “Love is divine only and difficult always. If you think it is easy, you are a fool. If you think it is natural, you are blind. It is a learned application without reason or motive except that it is God.” Tough, bracing, blessedly unsentimental. But also divisive. Those words are uttered in the service of retrenchment and self-righteousness; they feed attitudes that lead to murderous rampage.

The tough-love preacher has a hipper counterpart who preaches kinder, gentler, freer love, vintage 1970, who wants the youth of Ruby to broaden their horizons, to engage with whites, to embrace Africa. Where’s the middle ground?

Paradise is full of sentences that run from one pole to another. This, for example, about Ruby’s founding fathers: “What began as overheated determination became coldblooded obsession.” We meet a bride and groom “desperate for … public bonding to dilute their private shame”; we’ve already tasted the Convent’s “hellfire” peppers that make “heavenly” relish. These sentences push you to look for conciliation, the kind Consolata offers in her sermon, which is about spiritual love and love in the flesh, or “bones,” as she puts it. Here’s her wisdom: “Never break them in two. Never put one over the other.”

Ms. Morrison’s genius shines brightest when she zeroes in on the individual. She conjures Mavis, the white girl they shoot first, from a squalid domestic quandary: “Mavis sat in the corner of the sofa, not sure whether to scrape the potato chip crumbs from the seams of the plastic cover or tuck them further in.” In 1954, Soane, Deacon Morgan’s wife, went out to the Convent looking for an abortion. She was refused, and then the baby miscarried. Later, while pinning laundry on the line, she saw a stranger carrying a peck basket. “Soane noticed two things: the basket was empty but the lady carried it with two hands as though it were full, which … was a sign of things to come-an emptiness that would weigh her down, an absence too heavy to carry.”

The narrative is parceled out among at least a dozen major characters and another 30 or so bit players. Which scatters the attention. Very few scenes last more than a page or two; it’s rare for any character to hold center stage for long. One could argue that this is a bold jigsaw puzzle design, but I think all the quick cuts sap the power of the story. The parade of new faces begins to seem a tease, the piling up of incident an accretion of anecdote. All this busyness might work fine if the raid on the Convent were at last described with uninterrupted intensity, something like the barrage at the end of a fireworks show, but Ms. Morrison chops it up. We get coy winks when what we want is a prolonged stare.

There are a handful of weak sentences in Paradise, more than one expects from a writer of Ms. Morrison’s stature. The worst clinker sounds like a pulp fiction parody: “Anger shot through him like a .32.”

Some of the best sentences, dizzying, delightful, pan the Oklahoma sky; others caress simple domestic chores. My favorite, which shifts from indoors out, begins with Mavis shelling pecans by the Convent’s kitchen door-”the crack of shells, the tick of nutmeat tossed in the bowl, cooking utensils in eternal arrangement, insect whisper, the argue of long grass, the faraway cough of cornstalks.”

Ms. Morrison writes the best descriptions of food preparation I’ve ever read. She could probably write a killer cookbook-eclectic cuisine from the kitchen of a self-styled “Nobelette.” A generous stew would be her signature dish, a pungent concoction served from a giant cauldron. Inside, a steamy, blissful mélange.