You'll read Toni Morrison's "Home" in one day and forget it in another.
At a slim 160 pages, Ms. Morrison has tried to write a parable as she tells the story of Frank Money, an African-American veteran of the Korean War who has returned from battle stricken by the atrocities he committed for a country that still treats him as separate and less than equal.
But while Frank strives toward redemption and Ms. Morrison introduces characters helping him find it, not one registers with the complete dimensionality we've come to expect from this peerless author. The result is a short writing exercise for Ms. Morrison that reads like the outline for what could have been a more significant work.
Even its main character is half-realized. Frank Money left Lotus, Ga., for the war with two friends and returns to America as the area's only survivor, too ashamed of his sparing to move back to the town where he grew up.
When word comes that the younger sister he left behind is dying, Frank is forced to return to Georgia to save the childhood sidekick who always brought out the delicate side of him, and whose saving offers a chance at redemption for the atrocities he committed overseas.
Frank's journey toward Lotus doesn't take long to become an Odyssey as he's stopped by providential cameo appearances by kindly reverends and family men who exemplify the kind of man he is not. Frank's quest to save his sister is interspersed with introductions to family members and acquaintances also living through a segregated society.
But the brief visits with Frank's stepmother or girlfriend read like character sketches, and though each is given a 10-page treatment, that's exactly what it feels like: a treatment, intended as a character sketch and void of the inherent symbolism and wholeness we've seen in even the most minor characters of Ms. Morrison's greater books.
Let's face it: We cannot read "Home" in a vacuum -- not when it's by Toni Morrison, a Nobel laureate whose voice in books like "Beloved" turned her novels into indictments, and rightfully expanded her status from author to national sage.
Some of her beautiful, tactile writing shines through the abbreviated storytelling. Frank remembers the "girl-weight" against his arm when he recalls lying with his girlfriend, and bare trees are said to be "unable to speak without their leaves."
Frank Money and his problems are fertile ground for Ms. Morrison, and at first she seems ready to address a contemporary and relevant issue in tackling undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder among soldiers coming home. When Frank returns, he finds acquaintances who have used his lost years to build themselves up into better men and women -- getting jobs in the white man's world, advancing on a domestic battlefield while he fought overseas.
"You been in a desegregated army and maybe you think North is way different from down South," one character tells him. "Don't believe it and don't count on it. Custom is just as real as law and can be just as dangerous."
This critique -- that soldiers returning home often come back too bruised to function in the country they've protected -- is searing, relevant insight into a problem seen today, but Ms. Morrison can do little with it when most characters feel like passing visitors and not fully-formed identities.
Instead, she settles for an easy narrative that feels weighed down by its own search for importance, and while it sounds pretty sometimes, never finds a resplendence to place it alongside her better, more realized work.
Erich Schwartzel is a Post-Gazette staff writer firstname.lastname@example.org. First Published June 17, 2012 4:00 AM