by Robert Jones, Jr.
G. P. Putnam’s Sons. 400 pages, $27.
SOUTHERN SLAVEHOLDERS were “pestiferous,” said the great 19th-century abolitionist Frederick Douglass. They should be “execrated and loathed, with all other robbers and tyrants which have cursed and ruined society.” In his powerful debut novel The Prophets, Robert Jones, Jr., depicts in exquisite, often excruciating, detail the social ruination that slavery brought to the antebellum South. The racist system fostered violence, greed, cruelty and injustice on a massive scale. The enslaved were of course most grievously harmed. Whites, too, were made monstrous by the cursed institution. Setting his narrative on an 1830s plantation near Vicksburg, Mississippi, Jones employs mellifluous prose to tell a story that seems almost beyond words.
The author has embarked upon a difficult undertaking. He writes about same-sex love between enslaved people, attractions that undoubtedly existed but have so far been little explored by historians or fiction writers. It requires great deftness to place a gay couple at the center of a story set in a time when the very words for their relationship had not yet been invented. Jones wisely takes a discursive approach, interlacing his main story with chapters inspired by the Bible (mainly the Old Testament) or fueled by incantatory tales from pre-colonial Africa. Some of these side excursions work better than others. There will be readers who find them airy and abstract, as I did at first. But allow them to cast their spell. Together they bring historical sweep, magic, and flights of lyricism to the earthbound world.