Southern slaveholders were "pestiferous," said the great 19th-century abolitionist Frederick Douglass. They should be "execrated and loathed, with all other robbers and tyrants which have cursed and ruined society."
In his powerful debut novel, "The Prophets," Robert Jones Jr. depicts in exquisite, often excruciating detail the social ruination that slavery brought to the antebellum South. The racist system fostered violence, greed, cruelty and injustice on a massive scale. The enslaved were of course most grievously harmed. Whites were made monstrous by the cursed institution.
Scaling his narrative down to a single 1830s plantation near Vicksburg, Miss., Jones employs mellifluous prose to tell a story that seems almost beyond words.
Jones' undertaking has a high degree of difficulty. He writes about same-sex love between enslaved people, attractions that undoubtedly existed but have so far been little explored by historians or fiction writers. It requires great deftness to place a gay couple at the center of a story set in a time when the very words for their relationship had not yet been coined.
Wisely, Jones takes a discursive approach, lacing his main story with chapters inspired by the Bible (mainly the Old Testament) or fueled by incantatory tales from pre-colonial Africa. Some of these side excursions work better than others. There will be readers who find them floaty and abstract, as I did at first. But allow them to cast their spell. Together they bring historical sweep, magic and leavening flights of lyricism to the blood, sweat and tears of an earthbound world.
Samuel and Isaiah are young slaves on a big cotton plantation "known by its rightful name: Empty," and overseen by Paul Halifax and his wife, Ruth. The two slaves have been lovers for a while, stealing moments of tender passion in the hayloft of the barn where they care for farm animals. Other slaves know and don't much care that the two well-liked men are a couple. Amos, a slave-preacher who's been tutored in the Bible by the pious, hypocritical Paul, decides to condemn Samuel and Isaiah to his flock. When Paul and his overseer find out, they devise a sadistic punishment for the lovers.
Amos' betrayal is morally complicated, as he argues with some justification that Samuel and Isaiah are selfishly ignoring the woe that could befall all the slaves should the master find out.
Jones brings enormous depth of feeling and insight to the novel's characters, his women in particular. Burnished by their suffering, the enslaved women of Empty form a circle of near mythic power and resolve.
Most memorable among them is much-abused but steely Maggie, who oversees the master's kitchen, "where sorrow hung like hooks and rage leaped in from any opening." She personifies the terrible warping effect of slavery, which can turn mother against child, or make a slave prefer brutality to unpredictable kindness. Maggie's proximity to the Halifaxes sets up her key role in the novel's marvelously rendered climax, violent as a Tarantino film and twice as heart-rending.
Labeling "The Prophets" a "gay slave story" fails to fully describe its ambition and imaginative richness. Jones' astounding achievement is to open a world where love somehow dares to speak its name alongside our greatest national shame.
Claude Peck is a writer and editor. He recently edited "Doug Argue: Letters to the Future."
By: Robert Jones Jr.
Publisher: Putnam, 400 pages, $27.