The Turner House

Every spring I join a public-radio discussion of a literary competition called The Tournament of Books. In the T of B, sixteen novels published in the preceding year are put into a tournament bracket to compete against each other in head-to-head competitions judged by a panel of writers and critics. The competition was dreamed up by writers Kevin Guilfoyle and John Warner as a semi-tongue-in-cheek literary alternative to March Madness hoop dreams. The winner gets a statuette of a rooster (you know, a writer to crow about), and, with luck, a boost in sales.  

For me, it’s a way to get a lot of novel-reading done (sixteen in ten weeks!), and to trawl for new books and writers I might come to cherish.  

One favorite of mine this year was The Turner House, by Angela Flournoy. A terrifically impressive debut novel (and National Book Award finalist), it takes up the lives of the thirteen children of Viola and the late Francis Turner, most living in and around Detroit. The title refers to the family’s debt-laden and recently abandoned house, located in an East Side neighborhood that has suffered mass desertion in the economic disaster of the past decade. Though she keeps us mostly in the present – with Francis long dead and Viola an ailing and elderly matriarch -- Flournoy jumps intermittently back to Alabama during WWII and the events in the couple’s early life that led them to journey north. A multi-generational family epic, The Turner House creates a poignant portrait of the downfall of Detroit, telling the history of the African-American Great Migration via the triumphs and travails of one family.

Some writers seek to wow us with virtuoso prose and narrative effects. Flournoy is not that kind of writer. Her novel’s manner is traditional. One of the Tournament of Books judges put it well, calling The Turner House “an enormous, expansive, lived-in armchair, beautifully weathered, built to last... It’s comfortable, functional, beautiful, and inviting. You’re happy to stay there. You don’t really want to get up.”

That’s true. This kind of comfort is easy to take for granted in a novel. But Flournoy, while unshowy, is much more agile than you might think at first; indeed her novel reveals how being wise about people – for a novelist -- is always a matter of authorial skill. I admired how quietly convincing and well detailed the passages are that plumb the pathological gambling of one of the point-of-view characters, Lelah. Less skillful writers have trouble balancing what’s happening in a scene with the internal reality of characters’ thoughts and with narrative back-story: all too often, one element predominates over the other, or one seems sketchy or tacked-on. But Flournoy handles her scenes extraordinarily capably. You believe what characters are seeing, what they’re doing, what they’re saying (she has an excellent ear for dialogue) and what they’re thinking. This is really hard to do.

Flournoy’s command of unspectacular daily realities is near perfect. She’ll write a passage describing life on an automobile assembly line, and not only does she get it right, but the passage lacks the researchy feel that such set-pieces can have; instead, the depiction of work forms a seamless and necessary part of the evocation of the life of Cha-Cha Turner, the family member who’s working the line. Flournoy moves deftly from small daily actions to the interpretations her characters themselves make of those actions; she catches the way people read big meanings into the small events of their own lives. Thus Lelah, homeless and down on her luck, goes to the unemployment office and is stymied by bureaucratic roadblocks. “This was her new life, she thought, begging various people for money through windows.”

The novel brims with insights and with sympathetic understanding. Flournoy delves into people’s mixed motives to explore how authentic generosity can coexist with self-serving deviousness in one person. Thus we see a Turner brother, Troy, strategizing to buy the family house back for himself in a covert short sale; or Francis and Viola, back in the 1940s, separated and unfaithful to each other; or Lelah basically stealing money to gamble: and in each case, instead of judgment, we’re shown paths to understanding. The Turner House depicts deception and irresponsibility from the inside, and in the process makes transgression totally believable... and forgivable. This is a novel steeped in forgiveness. And humor. It’s one of the best portrayals of deep sibling knowledge that I can recall – the fighting, the teasing, the love and anger – the knowledge that is family, in a word. 

The family itself is treated with affectionate irony. Here, early on, is how Flournoy sums up the family’s fractious discussion of whether to sell Viola’s house:  “In true Turner fashion, the only thing they could all agree to (after Russell agreed to treat) was tabling the matter in favor of finding somewhere to eat dinner.” Flournoy writes scenes that have figurative resonance even as they are utterly believable realistically. There’s a scene where Cha-Cha as a young man during the 1967 riots is hiding from the cops under a ruined porch of an abandoned house, and his drunk father comes along and pisses on the porch, and effectively on him – an action Cha-Cha himself comes to suspect might have been intentional. Most writers would do this scene and you wouldn’t believe it – you’d think it was made up, forced, to make a point. Not here.

Moving effortlessly between events of today and those of 70 years ago, The Turner House is almost entirely free of spectacular events, with no reaching for bizarre plots turns, coincidences or calamities. The aging matriarch of a big family reaches the end of her life, as the family’s house reaches the end as well, bringing deep-seated fault lines to the surface. This is a chronicle of family life in its mixed-up, difficult and loving dailiness. It’s full of life and insight. So sit back and enjoy that armchair.

Some resources: The Tournament of Books concluded last week, and you can sift through the bracket here. The Colin McEnroe Show’s coverage of it, with your Commonweal critic participating, is here. A NYT review of The Turner House is here. A videotaped PBS interview with Flournoy, by Jeffrey Brown, is here. A Paris Review interview is here. And you can hear Flournoy reading from her book here.

 

 

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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