In her previous novel, "A Mercy," Toni Morrison gave us the ancestors to the cast of her great novel about slavery, "Beloved." Her latest novel, "Home," conjures their descendants: African-Americans living in 1950s America, a country they call home, but which provides them no warmth or shelter. It is a short, swift, and luminescent book. It also resembles nothing she has ever written.
From "The Bluest Eye," published in 1970, to "A Mercy," released four decades later, Morrison's work has created an essential footbridge between American speech and American modernism. Like William Faulkner, her novels fold in on themselves, fracture time, and employ a god-like narrative intelligence. As a reader, you are confused until Morrison brings you into the light.
And yet there is no novelist alive who has captured the beauty and democracy of the American vernacular so well. Her books are rich with talk, with riffs, with sass, and with the sounds, especially, of African-American speech. You can open them to any page and fall in, the way a radio dial cycling past a Miles Davis song must, and does, stop.
With the exception of "Paradise," though, Morrison's baroque storytelling structures have always worked best in the longer novels: "Song of Solomon," "Beloved," and "Jazz." The music of Morrison's language, with its poetic oral qualities, its ability to be both past and present in one long line, requires a robust structure, a big space; a small auditorium simply does not suit it.
"Home," then, is not what it might appear: a short book by a writer who, at this point, could publish her collected recipes and earn accolades. It is in fact a remarkable thing: proof that Toni Morrison is at once America's most deliberate and flexible writer. She has almost entirely retooled her style to tell a story that demands speed, brevity, the threat of a looming curtain call.
The book is a story about manhood. It opens in the voice of its hero, Frank Money, lyrically remembering the terrifying spectacle of the body of a black man being dumped from a wheelbarrow and quickly buried beneath a tree. This primal memory echoes throughout the book, as Frank makes his way home from the Korean War. Odysseus may have had a longer journey, but it was certainly not this humiliating.
On his way south Frank suffers or witnesses constant belittlement. He begins the book in a mental institution, unsure of how he got there, and escapes in the dead of night. On his journey home he is stiffed, robbed, rolled, pulled over, and frisked. He is prepared for this. "You could be inside, living in your own house for years," he remembers, thinking of families evicted, harassed from their farms, or threatened from their businesses. "[A]nd still, men with or without badges but always with guns could force you, your family, your neighbors to pack up and move — with or without shoes."
Frank does get help from fellow travelers, African-Americans who, in their links of kindness, form a kind of modern day Underground Railroad. On the train south he is given a shot of whiskey by a kind porter; in Chicago, he goes to a South Side diner for a meal and receives advice about safe places to stay.
In one of the book's finest scenes, at the same diner, he is welcomed into a brotherhood of people who have had to live as if they were on the lam. "You ever sleep in a coop the chickens wouldn't enter?" one diner asks. "Aw man, shut up. We lived in a ice house," replies another. Only to be topped by a diner who brags: "I slept on so many floors, first time I saw a bed I thought it was a coffin."
Stripped free of Morrison's usual mulching of the past, "Home" rattles onward like a train in search of its conclusion, its locomotive onomatopoeia coming from the call and response rhythm of its scenes. At each stage of his journey Frank falls into danger and is rescued, or relieved, by a brother, a sister. In between, he addresses the author herself in brief italicized passages that agonize over the friends he watched die in Korea, the memories that won't leave him.
There is one false note in the book: Frank's war memories. On the page, as Morrison has rendered them, they sound luridly war-filmic: men clutching their dismembered arms, calling for their mothers. Soldiers chopped neatly in half and yet still alive. The scavenging child clutching an orange, smiling, then saying, "Yum-yum," before the guard "blows her away.''
The harshest horror of this book, however, is not what happened over there, but what happens here. Frank is coming home to a place he never expected to leave because his sister is employed by a doctor who has begun to use her for grisly medical experiments. Would that this were fiction: Experiments of this type are described in Harriet Washington's riveting and damning book, "Medical Apartheids: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present."
Home is, in this book, a place within a place. It is the people who help, rather than divide; it is the tie of blood that does not curdle. Rising to the challenge of rescuing his sister, Frank becomes the man he wanted to be when he left home to fight a war that was not his own. This war took nearly everything from him, a man who had nothing.
Morrison's previous books have sometimes been cited, inappropriately, in raising the issue of reparations for America's centuries of injustice to blacks. In a time of war, when soldiers are returning to a country which has ceased to provide for them, when young black men can still be gunned down so easily, this one boldly asks the question of the hour: What kind of home is this?
John Freeman is the editor of Granta and the author of "The Tyranny of E-mail.''