$25, 333 pgs
Ruby Bell was a constant reminder of what could befall a woman whose shoe heels were too high. The people of Liberty Township wove her into cautionary tales of the wages of sin and travel. They called her buck-crazy. Howling, half-naked mad. The fact that she had come back from New York City made this somewhat understandable to the town.
Ruby may be the best book I’ve read so far this year and it’s been a great year for books. I stand in awe of, and humbled by, the talent of Cynthia Bond. She has created a meaty Southern Gothic gumbo of family, friendship, religion, prejudice, history, sex, opportunism and violence set in East Texas, which is apparently a natural theater for a particular brand of backwardness and cruelty endemic to the American South. Think Jasper and Vidor. Shudder. There are too many trees – makes me claustrophobic and you can’t see what the hell is going on a hundred yards away. And you really really need to know what’s going on in East Texas.
In 1963 Ruby Bell returns to the East Texas township of Liberty after having escaped to New York City (wherein she described herself as “…lost and found, all at the same time…”) many years earlier. Ruby had been taught from a small child that her body was, in her words, a “vending machine,” and so she put what she believed her only asset to work. As the consort of a society woman and philanthropist in New York, Ruby met Baldwin, Ellison, Bukowski, and de Kooning, attended the City College of New York, and wore Chanel and Pucci. Racism certainly still existed in the North, just not the drawling in-your-face sort she grew up with. Ruby is called back to Liberty when her childhood friend dies and observes that she “…has not breathed in that particular odor of obeisance for nearly a decade.”
Ephram Jennings has lived in Liberty all his life and fell absolutely in love with Ruby as a child. “…The sweet little girl with long braids. The kind of pretty it hurt to look at, like candy on a sore tooth.” Ephram was raised by his sister Celia after his mother was driven insane and committed by his father, the reverend Jennings (who is best and appropriately described as the dregs left behind when the scum of the earth moves on to greener pastures), and the good reverend was lynched. Ephram has never married, remaining with the regimented Celia, a good Christian woman. She said sarcastically.
Ruby’s poor, battered psyche learned to disassociate as a small child. What began as a self-defense mechanism merges with an unfortunate genetic predisposition that expands over the next decade so that Ruby’s mind spends less and less time in residence. Her descent into madness is excruciating but her reality is worse. It is an agony to watch Ruby and Ephram come so close to healing each other while his sister, convinced of her own righteousness and simultaneously steeped in false Christian humility, attempts to keep them apart. The welcoming committee of good Christian women is eleven years late. They aren’t interested in helping Ruby. They aren’t even really interested in whether Ephram is going to hell. He is an embarrassment in his bid for freedom; he has slipped the reins and some people will punish you for doing what they are too cowardly and/or unimaginative to do themselves.
Ruby benefits from an engrossing story, authentic dialogue that is practically a dialect of its own, and sense of place that is mesmerizing. You can smell the piney woods, feel the humidity on your upper lip, and hear the gospel songs. But the crowning glory of Ruby is its language. I don’t remember when I’ve read anything so beautiful, truly. A couple of examples:
[When Ephram goes a-courting]
About twenty other people found themselves wandering the back road to Bell land that day to see if Ephram would fall down and start foaming the evil out of his mouth. Instead they watched a lone man clean and tote and haul. But it was still more than enough. It wasn’t just the exhibition of sin that Celia Jennings had painted so beautifully during testimony that morning. It was the pure, unadulterated, juicy, unholy spectacle of the thing. The scarecrow crazy whore of Liberty had taken up with the township’s mule of a deacon.
[a description of the woods]
The piney woods were full of sound. Trees cracking and falling to their death; the knell of axes echoing into green; the mewl of baby hawks waiting for Mama’s catch. Bull frogs and barn owls. The call of crows and the purring of doves. The screams of a Black man. The slowing of a heart. All captured, hushed and held under the colossal fur of pine and oak, magnolia, hickory and sweet gum. Needles and capillary branches interlaced to make an enormous net, so that whatever rose, never broke through to sky. The woods held stories too, and emotions and objects: a tear of sleeve, bits of hair, long-buried bones, lost buttons. But mostly, the piney woods hoarded sound.
I took seven pages of notes as I read Ruby and at one point my pen has ripped the paper from anger. Make no mistake: Ruby is not an easy read. But it is necessary. Have courage and you will feel your soul stretching. There is no Disney ending here but there is hope. I am rooting for Ruby and Ephram.
Finally, she said, “You think I’m crazy.”
“Naw, I don’t.”
“Well, you wrong. I’m crazy, but that don’t make me stupid.”
“Then tell me what you’re watching.”
Without turning her head she took one step onto a bridge named Ephram.