Twenty-three years ago, Gayl Jones‘ first novel, Corregidora, was hailed by James Baldwin as a ”brutally honest and painful revelation of…the souls of Black men and women,” and her second, Eva’s Man, was similarly lauded. Now 48, Jones published little more until the Beacon Press brought out her new novel, The Healing, last month. But shortly after Newsweek pronounced the book ”a major literary event,” police in Lexington, Ky., attempted to arrest the novelist’s husband, Bob Jones, 51, on a 14-year-old warrant. After a three-hour standoff Feb. 20, he killed himself by cutting his own throat. Gayl Jones, threatening suicide, was committed to a Lexington mental hospital.
The incident was a tragic twist in a life filled with strange turns. Raised in Lexington, Gayl Jones was reportedly an outstanding student but modeled herself on J.D. Salinger, refusing to sit for high school yearbook photographs. She remained reclusive and conducted interviews about her new novel by e-mail. Despite her shyness, Jones found mentors — first literary doyenne Elizabeth Hardwick and later Toni Morrison, her editor at Random House. But the brilliant career fizzled in 1983 after Jones’ companion, Bob Higgins (who changed his name to Jones after they wed), was arrested for menacing gay-rights activists in Ann Arbor, Mich. The pair fled to Europe, and the author became even more isolated, recalls Naomi Long Madgett, publisher of the Lotus Press, which brought out Jones’ poetry. ”Once I forwarded something to her and she cut off all communication. I thought it was…the influence of this man.”
The couple moved back to Lexington in 1988 to care for her ailing mother, whose death from cancer last year appeared to drive Bob Jones over the edge: He began sending threatening letters to hospital authorities, accusing them of murder. When the Lexington police read the Newsweek story (which mentioned the Ann Arbor incident), ”we realized this guy might hurt somebody,” says Lexington police chief Larry Walsh.
Ironically, the tragedy may end up boosting her sales. The Healing — the first original novel in Beacon’s 143-year history — is already in its second printing, and the company will bring out her never-published novel The Mosquito in 1999.