i’m glad this book didn’t win the damn booker. that just means it wasn’t a complete snoozefest. Vernon God Little? thumbs down. The Gathering? bleah. Wolf Hall? zzzzz. G.?? not his best. and from what i hear of this year’s winner, the barnes? is not positive reviews, kiddies.
so i’m glad this book escaped that label, because when this book is good, it sparkles like a thousand year old vampire in the sun. and i was halfway through before i realized this was an authoress. not that it matters, but there was something so authentic-feeling about this group of hard-living black male jazz musicians holed up in nazi-occupied paris, that i just naturally assumed the author was privy to the way men interact with each other; the baiting and insults, the quips and bravado, the sullenness that comes from waiting waiting waiting, while the female character seemed like a perfect invention – a fantasy of talent and maternal/sexual intrigue. but not tawdry, just better-than, if you know what i mean. this just sounds so spot-on to me:
“Don’t go all Joe Bavaria on us, brother. You ain’t a prude. Come on. So she ain’t no caviar. Each man got the spice he likes. So you like old ordinary pepper.”
“Nothing wrong with pepper,” Paul agreed.
“It’s black,” said Chip.
“That it is, Buck. That it is.”
well done, lady writer.
for me, i like my historical fiction to be simply dusted with historical elements. sometimes it is great to learn whopping amounts of information about a particular time and place, but sometimes the character wins the day for me. and in this case, that is what happened. i learned just enough about what was at stake for black individuals during the beginning of nazi power – i had no idea there were different “levels” of blackness, each with their particular benefits or hardships. musicians were initially more or less safe, but when the turn came, it was swift and brutal.
Jazz. Here in Germany it became something worse than a virus. We was all of us damn fleas, us Negroes and Jews and low-life hoodlums, set on playing that vulgar racket, seducing sweet blond kids into corruption and sex. It wasn’t a music, it wasn’t a fad. It was a plague sent out by the dread black hordes, engineered by the Jews. Us Negroes, see, we was only half to blame – we just can’t help it. Savages just got a natural feel for filthy rhythms, no self-control to speak of. But the Jews, brother, now they cooked up this jungle music on purpose. All part of their master plan to weaken Aryan youth, corrupt its Janes, dilute its bloodlines.
We lived with that for ten damn years.
or that the nazis started their own brand of jazz, to try to quell the demand for it with a whiter, more sanctioned form of the music, whose musicians used sheet music. nazi jazz – think about it – how efficient it must have been. shudder.
but in this book, sid, the narrator, is complicated enough without piling all kinds of historical learning on top of him. he is a loveable, hateable, conflicted, damaged unreliable narrator torn between his desire for a woman and his jealousy over “the kid”, hieronymous falk, whose trumpet is astonishing and who seems to draw people to him like sweet baffled honey.
but, hell, i will keep going, only to say thank you to bill thompson for sending me this book, and then lighting a fire under my ass about reading it, because i may have just let it languish on my shelves without the gentle prod. when it is published in this country, i am going to order up a ton of them, and hand-sell it like mad. i loved the lilting prose, i loved the group of musicians, i felt genuine emotion for them as the story unspooled. oh, there are some heartbreaking moments in this one, friends…
i do recommend it to you. highly.