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Miah Jeffra's "American Gospel" - Book Review

4 April 2023

American Gospel, a new novel by Miah Jeffra

Certainly, Jeffra’s American Gospel addresses issues of critical race theory, faith, gender and sexuality, extinction versus gentrification versus progress, in a manner so complex yet so well-defined that it could be taught in classrooms. Nevertheless, what I found within the pages of the text was evidence of my own theory: great change, world change, has roots in the smallest moments, in the home, during childhood. This is a psychoanalytic case study—albeit fictitious. How and why does communication fail to foster connection? In what ways does core trauma and generational trauma impact society? Via his mesmerizing lyricism, Jeffra answers these questions and reinforces my own theory that what makes something deeply intimate and personal also makes it universal, and that we solve macro problems in micro moments.

Jeffra’s psychological realism serves to illustrate why we act the way we do—specifically, why we are so challenged in our interpersonal connections. We witness through Ruth and Thomas and Peter how things unsaid leave us isolated from those we love. “We are being evicted.” “I am gay.” “I found a flower.” “I love you.” So much could be clarified, if only these words were spoken. We witness this most in Ruth. When Peter’s acceptance to Columbia University arrives in the mail, Ruth is concurrently coping with the Crabtown relocation letter and her belief that Isaac looms lethal. In her terror, she cannot force words out: “There is no air in me, I can’t even open my mouth to explain. The relocation letter. Isaac’s flower and no note. To have Peter understand. All of it is stuck way down my throat” (263).

But why is Ruth this way? Why can’t she let Peter in? This question plagued me the entire novel until the end, when I learned that her invalidating mother had shut Ruth down. When Ruth’s Daddy died, she called her mother and said, “Daddy. Oh, God. Mama. I’m sorry.” Her mother replied, “Ruth Anne, you always say the stupidest things,” then hung up on her (400). Did Jeffra save this nugget for the end of the novel on purpose? I must expect so…that Jeffra gets generational trauma. So we’re left to speculate: if Ellwood Park is full of phantom Jobys, how might Baltimore have been different if Ruth’s mother hadn’t silenced her? What if, instead of biting her tongue, Ruth had spoken the words she needed to Joby, Abe, Isaac…to Peter? What if, then, Peter had been a Max from the get-go, someone unafraid to embody his identity, speak plainly, and gather with like-minded souls? What about the million other Ruth’s mothers across the globe? Just think of that reach!

To be sure, Peter isn’t wrong when he muses that “If desire ripens in the absence of language, then words kill it, make it rotten. Words, that attempt precision, yet never absolute, like science like religion, never in full agreement, always slightly askew from exact meaning. If desire ripens in the absence of language, then words kill it” (373). Language fails us in every way, every day. It is just a tool fashioned by mankind; just like mankind, it is imperfect. Nevertheless, words are our broadest avenue for connection—and so we must try to obliterate barricades.

In Jeffra’s representation of the phantom character Joby, and then Peter, as products of Ruth’s incapacity to vulnerably connect with her children (learned from her own mother), I see an acute understanding of how what begins in the modest confines of the family home plays out large over millennia, as those children become adults and have children of their own—via riots, violence, politics, and war. This is the impact of generational trauma. This is how micro becomes macro, and if we want change to happen, we must reverse this process: what macro ills began with the micro must be healed in the micro in order to be seen in the macro. It’s Max’s little group of young people confident in their voices that meet, that march, that move. Revolution begins there, protecting one building at a time. It also begins with Thomas’s tiny tremendous decision to gift his family home to Mirabelle and enhance, revivify Little Italy’s flavor for the future. Small begets big.

When I was a stay-at-home mother, people reassured my tumultuous subconscious, saying, “The most important work is accomplished at home.” It was nice to hear, but I thought they were full of shit. What was I doing to save the world? Wiping butts? Baking tater tots? Blubbering googoo gaagaa until my brain atrophied from understimulation? I loved and hated that job. Mothering. But now I see. Those moments of vulnerable, authentic connection with my children will, in fact, change the world. Jeffra’s American Gospel tells me so.

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