Joy (novel)

Joy (1990) is a novel by Marsha Hunt about the relationship between two African American women which is based on secrets, lies, and delusion. Mainly set in a posh New York apartment in the course of one day in the spring of 1987, the novel contains frequent flashbacks that describe life in a black neighbourhood in the 1950s and 1960s. The book also deals with stardom in the music business and some people's inability, despite their riches, to make their own American Dream come true and to lead fulfilled lives.

Plot summary

The first person narrator of the novel is Palatine Ross, a 70 year-old cleaning woman originally from New Orleans whose childhood is dominated by poverty and loss. One of six children whose father left the family never to be seen again, she experiences even more hardship when three of her brothers, who work as farm hands, die in a burning barn. When, shortly afterwards, her mother also dies, it falls upon Palatine to raise her two remaining siblings, Caesar and Helen.

After the end of the Second World War, Palatine marries, and the newlyweds decide to leave the South for good. They move to Oakland, California, with Caesar and Helen in tow, both of whom have by now become alcoholics. Palatine, who has had no formal education, and her husband start working as "apartment managers", a job which mainly consists in collecting the rent and scrubbing the floors of the building where they live. Their marriage remains childless though, and the couple find solace by becoming active members of one of the local churches.

When, in 1956, a young widowed mother of three moves into the apartment next to theirs, Palatine recognizes in one of the girls, eight year-old Joy Bang, her "God-sent child", the one she could never have herself, especially when she notices that Joy's mother prefers Joy's sisters over her. For the next twenty years or so, Palatine keeps "sticking her two cents in". A do-gooder, she turns the other family's life upside down by showering Joy with her affection and meddling with her mother's way of bringing up her three children. However, for reasons yet unknown to Palatine (and the reader), Joy's mother is grateful for Palatine's interference, and no open conflict arises.

Shutting her eyes to all the evil in the world and firmly relying on God and the words of the Bible as guidance, Palatine tries to raise Joy and her sisters to be educated, honest and religious members of society. The fact that, growing up in a rough neighbourhood, the not yet teenaged girls are very early in their lives confronted with sex willingly escapes her notice. It troubles Palatine a lot when Dagwood, her neighbour's new boyfriend, starts spending the night with the girls' mother. One morning during the summer vacation, while his girlfriend is at work and Palatine is taking care of the children, Dagwood stays on in the apartment. While he is hung over and still half asleep, ten year-old Brenda, the oldest, performs oral sex on him, with Joy watching. Briefly at a loss, Palatine, on learning about this unbelievable incident, talks to Dagwood and demands of him that he leave town immediately without even waiting for his girlfriend to return from work. Also, she makes Brenda and Joy "swear eternal secrecy" and never tell their mother about it. Some years later she arranges a secret backstreet abortion for Anndora, the youngest of the three sisters who is still in high school, which, though "successful", results in the girl never being able to become pregnant again.

Right from the start, Palatine tries to take the three girls along to church, seeing that their blaspheming mother will never do so. It is there that, during choir practice, the girls' -- especially Brenda's -- singing talent is discovered. Eventually, after winning first prize in a gospel contest some time in the mid-1970s, the three sisters are offered a chance to go to a recording studio and release a single, "Chocolate Chip", a song especially written for them. Calling themselves Bang Bang Bang (after their family name), they immediately become popular with both black and white audiences and, in 1977, after their song has hit the charts, start touring both the United States and parts of Europe. While their mother stays behind, Palatine is on the road with them wherever they go ("Them times was the best I had in my life") as their "wardrobe mistress", "a cleaning woman who they'd drug along to make sure Brenda got up in the morning and Anndora came back at night", as the latter "went out with any Tom, Dick or Harry that invited her" and "couldn't go a whole day without sex".

The entrance into the world of show business leaves some indelible marks on the girls' lives. Whereas Brenda, a big and violent girl generally considered ugly, puts on a lot of weight (especially during their stay in Germany), her sisters are quickly initiated into the world of drug use and abuse. What worries Palatine much more though is Joy's tendency to ignore her being black -- without any chance ever of passing for white as she is far too dark-skinned. Time and again, in the course of more than twenty years, Palatine tries to convince Joy that finding herself a nice coloured boyfriend whom she could marry and have children with would be the right thing to do. ("Don't go falling in love with no limousine, 'cause it won't never propose to you.") However, Joy never listens to her. Rather, she tells Palatine to "think big" and "think white" and does not have a single African American lover. The attraction Joy feels towards WASP men culminates in her affair with an English lord who is married with four little children. One of the rare comic passages of the book is about the three sisters and 60 year-old Palatine going to a charity ball in Knightsbridge, London, where Joy meets her young lord while Palatine dances with an old Englishman (Ch.14):

The fogyish man with the white hair that I'd shouted don't give yourself a cardiac to must of figured that I was making a pass at him, 'cause the next time that "Chocolate Chip" played he come over to me and pulled me out on the dance floor, and I thanked God that Joy Bang had taught me to do that dance 'cause with me supposed to be their manager that night, it wouldn't of looked right if I hadn't of known how to Chocolate Chip like them old white folks that was trying it.

"Go 'head with your bad ass self," I said to get him hotted up. I don't know if he knew that was just meant to be friendly and get him dancing better, but it was as much as I could do to give him some encouragement. When he lifted up his leg like a dog ready to pee and stuck out what behind he had and shook it all over, I smiled like he was dancing real good, but not once was he in time with the rhythm. When he got tired of doing the Chocolate Chip he twisted for a while. I laughed to myself and thought if colored folks danced that bad we wouldn't never be allowed on no dance floor.

However, "Chocolate Chip" remains a one hit wonder after an interview given by Brenda to some gay magazine in which she announces her coming out as a lesbian. She leaves the group and goes to Boston, where she takes some menial job at the post office. Anndora goes to Milan, Italy, never to be heard of again, and Joy moves to New York City to be close to Rex Hightower, a country and western singer who seems to be her new boyfriend, "a rednecked toothpick from Oklahoma" who wears "his hair in a ponytail like a woman's" and who arranges for Joy to do occasional backup vocals. Their mother moves to Richmond, Virginia and eventually marries a retired policeman. Palatine and Joy never lose touch completely: From time to time Palatine gets a letter with news from her favourite Bang sister with a few banknotes added; sometimes Joy phones her; and once or twice a year she comes to see Palatine and her husband, who have moved to San Francisco. In the mid-1980s, however, Palatine starts worrying about Joy as on two occasions she borrows money from her.

In March 1987, while Palatine is looking forward to spending a weekend with Joy in Reno gambling, Joy dies, aged only 39, in Taos, New Mexico, allegedly of a massive heart attack. On hearing the bad news, Palatine flies to New York for Joy's funeral. There, in Joy's posh split level apartment, she encounters the whole family. However, rather than being able to mourn Joy's death, she for the first time learns things about Joy which finally force her to abandon her blinkered view of her "God-sent child" and admit that she was a sinner rather than a saint.

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