False Start

Ann Patchett’s new novel opens with a wryly romantic vision of motherhood. Bernadette Doyle, recently deceased mother of one biological and two adopted sons, has left behind a beguiling Irish statue of the Virgin Mary, bearing an uncanny resemblance to red-haired Bernadette herself. When her sisters come to claim the statue, long handed down to daughters in the family, Bernadette’s widower refuses to hand it over, pointing out that his two boys, Tip and Teddy, pray to their mother’s image every night. Though no one will say it aloud, everyone understands why Bernadette’s sisters think Tip and Teddy would be particularly unsuitable beneficiaries of the statue: because they’re black.

Run is the second of Patchett’s five novels to take on the subject of race. She is not interested in racial tension so much as in the possibility of love—and respect—crossing racial lines. The black narrator of her early novel Taft is a former jazz musician, frustrated by his distance from his own son, who befriends two troubled white teenagers; much of the narrative concerns his attempts to imagine the white children’s father, whom he has never met. In her seminal work on whites writing blacks, Playing in the Dark, Toni Morrison argues that white American writers have historically used black characters as a mirror of their own anxieties. Taft, then—white writer imagining black father imagining white father—is both a hall of mirrors and a brave narrative stretch.

In Run, the narrative impulse is quite different. Tip and Teddy have been shaped by white culture down to their very names: their adoptive father, Bernard, is an ex-mayor of Boston and has named them after the whitest of political heroes. Teddy’s role model is his uncle, an old Irish-American priest, while Tip, a Harvard student planning a career as an ichthyologist and something of a cold fish himself, generally prefers the company of dead specimens to live humans, white or black. Run imagines what happens when black children are raised in prosperous white houses listening to Schubert. They may know their Martin Luther King speeches by heart, but their immediate world, right down to their religious icons, is white, white, white.

Patchett is an old-fashioned plotter who plants the seeds of her complicated climaxes carefully. Her style is lightly comic and straightforward, her storylines romantic and idealistic. Her best-known novel, Bel Canto (2001), depicts an otherworldly opera singer kidnapped in an unnamed Latin American country; a fable about intense passion and forgiveness in the age of terrorism, it imagines not just reconciliation but love between terrorists and their victims.

Run is much more decidedly rooted in realism: no dreamy raptures here. Most of the action takes place during a single eventful day, when an accidental and traumatic meeting brings the boys together with their biological mother, Tennessee, and introduces them to their resourceful younger sister Kenya, an eleven-year-old runner and wise woman.

The shamelessness of the coincidences Run employs to bring and keep these characters together is just one of several problems in the novel. Patchett tells the story for the most part in an omniscient voice that tends to summarize its characters and at times veers close to cliché: “Tip knew how to put words to things while Teddy knew how to follow what was in his heart”; Tennessee “had meant to do something with her life.” All the characters—young and old, white and black—sound similar, both in their interior monologues and their speech. Their language is so heavily vanilla-flavored that it’s hard to believe that Tip and Teddy have come to manhood in the age of hip-hop and postmodern ironic pose. Other contemporary writers of multiracial culture like Zadie Smith and Junot Díaz revel in the way language crosses cultural and ethnic lines, but Patchett sticks to the default language of the Doyles: privileged, educated, white.

This formality is intentional, and, in the case of Tennessee and her daughter Kenya, seems to show that they are not intellectually or linguistically bound by race or poverty. But it is not always credible; when Tennessee confesses to a friend that “sometimes I feel like my entire life has been some sort of study in genetics,” she sounds as if she’s discussing literary themes rather than her own terrors. As for Tip and Teddy, they may be admirably immune to pop culture, and Teddy is certainly a saintly character, but their consciousness of being black in a white world is so muted that they come off less as fully imagined beings than as ideas. And while Tip’s uptightness itself is a terrific characteristic for exploration, it isn’t probed as deeply as it might be, nor are Tennessee’s reasons for giving up her boys or Bernard’s for adopting them.

All these characters are presented as decent people doing the best they can in the face of death and dying. This is a generous vision of humanity; but by novel’s end, when Kenya has been folded into the white culture that has sheltered her brothers, her God-given talent now effectively nurtured by white largesse, this very generosity creates implications Patchett hasn’t fully considered. I’m certainly grateful that a writer as accomplished as Ann Patchett is willing to explore race in America; as an admirer of her work I only wish that she had gone the distance with Run.

Published in the 2008-01-31 issue: 
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Valerie Sayers is the William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of English at the University of Notre Dame and the author of six novels, including The Powers.

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