In America, black men are incarcerated at five times the rate of whites. There’s not much public discussion of what happens when they get out of prison — how they reckon with the families they left behind, or never got to start in the first place. Tayari Jones’s powerful fourth novel, “An American Marriage,’’ the latest selection in Oprah’s Book Club, explores how one man’s false imprisonment causes his life and marriage to come undone.
Roy and Celestial are a successful couple making their way in Atlanta. He’s a sales rep, “young, hungry, and on the come-up.” She’s “an artist, intense and gorgeous.” But even before the night that changes their lives, there’s a tension that hovers over all the possibility in the air, a constant thrumming reminder that one’s own destiny isn’t always within his control. “[H]ome isn’t where you land; home is where you launch,” Roy says. “You can’t pick your home any more than you can choose your family.”
He comes from humble beginnings (“All my life I have been helped by leg-up programs”) while his wife “[wears] her pedigree like the gloss on a patent-leather shoe.”
Eighteen months into their marriage, while visiting his parents in small town Louisiana, Roy is accused of a rape he didn’t commit and sentenced to 12 years in prison. Though Celestial never doubts his innocence, their bond frays as her life rolls on, and his is thwarted. Her career thrives. He resents it. She finds solace in Andre, a lifelong friend who introduced them in college and was best man at their wedding. Roy’s mother dies. Not long after, three years into his sentence, Celestial tells him the marriage is over: “You can’t bear to hear about my days and I can’t bear to hear about yours.”
The 50 pages that detail Roy’s incarceration are told through letters, which beautifully illustrate the distance between husband and wife, and all that goes unsaid. After five years in prison, Roy’s conviction is vacated, and he is once again a free man, unaware that Celestial and Andre are now a couple.
The astonishing final two-thirds of the book concern Roy’s homecoming. Jones is at the height of her powers as she depicts him leaving jail, greeted only by his father, and visiting his mother’s grave, well aware that he never got to say a proper goodbye. Rather than graphic memories of his incarceration, Jones instead has Roy recall his childhood key collection, which he once imagined could open all sorts of doors. “When I went to prison, I envisioned those keys every day,” he says, a line that conveys so much of his humanity, his sense of being trapped against his will.
Roy, Celestial, and Andre narrate alternating chapters. Jones manages to make us empathize with all three. She doesn’t simplify anything. The marriage to begin with was imperfect. Roy had a wandering eye. They fought a lot. But there was a fierce love there. It’s brutal to see Roy alone in the world, and yet the matter of Celestial’s responsibility to him is complex.
Through the accumulation of small details, Jones paints a portrait of a nation still deeply divided along lines of race and class. Roy sees a piece of fabric, and describes its shade as “the peachy white that crayon companies used to call ‘flesh.’ ” His mother is buried in “what used to be called the ‘colored cemetery.’ This graveyard dated back to the 1800s, to right after slavery ended.” Celestial describes her family as, “what the rest of America thinks of as middle-middle class and what black America calls upper-middle class. No maid. No private school. No trust fund. Just two parents, each with two degrees and, between them, two decent jobs.”
Jones draws a subtle but direct line between the legacy of slavery and the racist underpinnings of our current criminal justice system. It is not lost on Roy that, while in prison, he was forced to spend his days picking soybeans. When he tells Andre, “ ‘What happened to me could happen to anybody,’ ” Andre replies, “ ‘You think I don’t know that? . . . I been black all my life.’ ”
The best fiction illuminates reality. It’s impossible to read these pages without thinking of Sandra Bland, arrested and killed by police on the way home from a job interview; or the hundreds of prisoners who’ve been exonerated in recent years, only after losing years of their lives; or men like Troy Davis, executed for a crime he likely did not commit.
An individual can only ever get so far when he is part of a system that’s rigged against him. Langston Hughes famously wrote about the fate of a dream deferred, a concept that echoes in one of the letters Celestial sends to Roy in jail. She will open a store and sell her creations, as they talked about, she says. Though without him. “It’s not our dream,” she writes, “but it’s dream-adjacent.”
AN AMERICAN MARRIAGE
By Tayari Jones
Algonquin, 308 pp., $26.95
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J. Courtney Sullivan is the author, most recently, of the novel “Saints for All Occasions.’’