The Fisher King: A Novel
"A little Child
will lead them" could well be the theme of Paule Marshall's latest
and fifth novel, THE FISHER KING. It is a tale of longings that
reach beyond the grave, of family rivalries that transcend death,
and of the redeeming power of love --- in spite of our lack of
forgiveness. It is also a story about how misguided and thwarted
desires can ruin family relationships.
Using jazz as a backdrop, the story weaves in and out of four
generations of two families who could be described as the modern
day Hatfields and McCoys. These two Brooklyn families were
unwillingly united through the Romeo and Juliet romance of their
offspring, Everett Payne and Cherisse McCullum, who ran away after
eloping, becoming expatriates in late 1940's
At the opening of the novel, both Everett and Cherisse are dead.
After their deaths, their only daughter, JoJo, went bad and ran
away at the age of 14. At 15, she dropped off her newborn son,
named Sonny, for Hattie to rear. (Hattie had been her parents'
childhood friend and her father's lifelong live-in manager.) Hattie
loved the couple so much that she feels she has something of both
of them in the infant and tries to raise him in her now greatly
The backstory is slowly revealed through the current story.
Everett, renamed "Sonny-Rett Payne" by his followers, had been the
toast of Brooklyn in 1947, when he combined his own creative genius
with his childhood training of Bach and Beethoven. As a pianist he
could create tunes that became part of the innovative,
unpredictable sound called "jazz." His mother Ulene, a first
generation West Indies immigrant, had sacrificed her life as a
hardworking widow (in order to pay for his classical music
lessons). When her son was a teenager, she turned on him for
playing what she called "The Sodom and Gomorrah music." In fact,
Ulene became so bitter towards her son that she would not let him
return to her home when he came out of the army at age 21.
Subsequently, Sonny-Rett and his runaway bride Cherisse moved to
Paris, where they remained until their deaths, never to return to
their respective homes.
Sonny-Rett's wife Cherisse was the pampered, only child of Florence
Varina McCullum-Jones, the Black Scarlett O'Hara of the block.
Florence Varina had big dreams for Cherisse to become the next Lena
Horne. To that end, she spent all of her money grooming her
daughter to be a singer and dancer, neither of which Cherisse had
the talent nor inclination to do. Although Cherisse never became a
star, she dressed like a vedette, a movie star, until her
When Hattie returns from Paris with 8-year old Sonny, there is a
revival of interest in Sonny-Rett's music --- which his well-to-do,
entrepreneurial-minded brother, Edgar Payne, plans to capitalize on
by throwing a concert to commemorate the 15th anniversary of his
brother's death. Edgar previously had hired a detective to find
Hattie and his grand nephew Sonny in Paris and invited them to the
concert. From this set up, the past and present collide in a
It is Sonny Rett's grandson, at the age of eight, who tries to
reunite the two warring great-grandmothers. And although it doesn't
turn out like he expects, his effort has its payoff.
Through this rich, textured plot, we get a historical lesson on the
rise and fall of jazz for many of the African American expatriates
who fled this country for creative freedom in Europe. Many, like
the character Sonny-Rett, died broke and disillusioned. We also see
the ongoing clash between the different factions of the Diaspora of
Africa, such as the African Americans versus the West Indies
On one level, this is a universal story of the damage parents can
do when they place all their hopes and dreams on their children.
Ulene and Florence Marina both could have taken lessons from Khalil
Gibran when he said, "Our children are not our children but the
source of life's longing for itself." The premise is that pride in
your offspring to the extreme instead of letting your offspring
follow their own true callings can destroy the relationship. But
these women were also shaped by their cultures. Upward mobility and
breaking in through musical or singing talent was part of the
American Dream for Blacks during the 1940s. Both of these
strong-willed women, in trying to shape their children to their
desires, did the very thing they didn't want --- instead of
bringing their children closer to them, the two mothers, Ulene and
Florence Varina, drove their adult children out of their lives.
Their attendant guilt is what made them bitter, hateful old
The character I liked most in THE FISHER KING was 8-year-old Sonny,
the grandson named for his famous grandfather. Most of the actions
are filtered through his central consciousness, so you get the
double irony of what is going on in his childish perception while
understanding all the hidden agendas of the adults. You can also
see through Sonny's precociousness and his drawings that he, too,
will be a future artist.
On another level, this is a tragic story of how society often
destroys its artists, be they writers, musicians, or painters. My
heart went out to Sonny-Rett and his vulnerability as a pianist who
only wanted to "tilt his ear to the heavens" and create his
In THE FISHER KING the writing itself is subtle and quiet but
exciting. Marshall has an ear for dialect, and her plots are well
thought out. I like to think of her works as having an undercurrent
of turbulence that is always present. I've always liked Paule
Marshall for her deftly turned sentences, where you can hear the
rhythms of Barbados and West Indies culture in every line.
Moreover, I like to reread different lines out loud just to hear
how Marshall weaves her native tongue from Barbados into her
narrative and dialogue. For instance, here's Ulene talking to
Sonny. "I went to my father and I said, 'Papa, the white people war
finish, give me my passage and my show money."
Marshall's subtext deals with old versus new, young versus old, the
generational divide that has plagued mankind since the beginning of
time. It's the age-old paradox. In order for mankind to progress,
children have to break away from traditions, yet traditions are the
underpinning of society. When people like Sonny-Rett do not conform
to the norms, society destroys them. Then, years after their
deaths, their works and they themselves are usually revered for
their being ahead of their time.
The moment of truth for each character is exceptionally poignant
and well rendered. It wasn't that Ulene or Florence Varina changed
and went and made up. However, through their common great grandson,
(namesake of the errant son who broke both of the women's hearts),
they both had an epiphany. Likewise, Hattie, the caretaker of Sonny
and the manager for Sonny-Rett, has her moment of truth, which will
shock you and leave you reeling.
Reading Paule Marshall has always reminded me of a slow strip
tease. She starts out slowly, setting up the situation and the
characters. She uses such striking details while fleshing out her
characters that you can actually see them. At the same time, with
the exception of her first novel, BROWNGIRL, BROWNSTONE, I've
always had a hard time getting into her books --- but once I get
into her novels, I can't put them down. And I always walk away
feeling soul-satisfied. When I finish her books, I am eager to go
back and reread her works, the same way I reread Toni Morrison to
see what I missed the first time around.
THE FISHER KING is no exception. In an explosive climax, which blew
me away, I found myself up all night finishing the last half of
this book. I was disturbed by the ending, yet I liked its
ambiguity. It was fitting and it left something to the reader's
imagination as to what will be little Sonny's fate.
Reviewed by Maxine E. Thompson on January 22, 2011