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Thursday
Nov202014

Book Review: Amercan Blues by Evan Guilford Blake

Writing the Blues

American Blues by Evan Guilford-Blake

Reviewed by Casey Dorman

 

Every once in a while I make the rounds of the local music venues and bars, searching for some classic jazz or blues. I’m always disappointed.  The jazz is usually something Latin and the blues is thinly disguised, or not disguised at all, rock and roll or grunge, sometimes with some rap thrown in for good measure. Earlier this  year I took my search to New Orleans, which I was sure would reveal the sound I was yearning for, but it didn’t.  I’d last  been to the city in the early 80s and remembered open-front bars with Dixieland or barrel-house blasting from a dark interior, or solitary, ancient black men, picking their guitars and telling me about the life of the down and out. Thirty years later I might just as well have been back in LA. The music I was seeking had become a thing of the past.

So it makes sense, that, in his new collection of short stories, American Blues, Evan Guilford-Blake sets all but one of his stories at least 35 years ago. Guilford-Blake is known for his affection for noir fiction (his only novel is titled Noir(ish)). Even the  collection’s one “modern” story, Animation, set in 2010 at the height of the recent recession, deals with the hopelessness of  unemployment in middle-age—a suitable blues theme even without the central theme of music, which characterizes the other four stories..

With the exception of  Animation, the stories in American Blues span the years from 1943 to 1977. They are all blues stories: hard tales of the vanishing dreams of those who find themselves lost in the society in which they live, their thoughts as much on what might have been as on the reality around them.

 Sonny’s Blues  (1977) tells the story of Sonny Curtis, a fifty-year old jazz saxophone player, barely able to make a living playing at a Chicago club, divorced by a wife who gave up on him because of his lack of income, his travel, and the fact that he cared only for his music. Sonny lives an isolated existence, his social relations confined to his sometime girlfriend, and a childhood friend, who plays in his jazz band. He is plagued by stomach pains, which are worsening. When he finally visits a doctor he finds out that he has incurable cancer, only a few months to live. He tries to fight the pain with medication, but it is a losing battle. When he can no longer make it through an evening’s gig, he gives in to the disease and, while listening to a recording of his favorite jazz, commits  suicide.  It’s an end we can see coming and the only one that seems to make sense for Sonny, who dies alone with no companion other than the one thing to which  he related with any success in his life,  music.

In Tio’s Blues (1957), Tio,  a twenty-eight year old mildly retarded man with a gift for playing trumpet,  lives with his younger brother, Matt, in the home of his Aunt. Tio is ignorant of the world. Much of his time is spent alone, “practicing” his trumpet  by imitating  recordings of classical jazz trumpeters. Tio idolizes Matt, who tells Tio about girls but secretly has Tio masturbate him. When Tio meets a girl, and begins his first sexual exploration, he also tells her about masturbating his brother. The girl, who carries a knife, reacts violently. Summoned by the noise from the altercation, Matt bursts in and  intervenes but ends up grabbing the knife and stabbing Tio’s girl friend, then running away, leaving Tio alone with his bleeding girlfriend, whom the impaired young man does not realize has died.

Nighthawks (1943), the most lyrical of the stories, is a poetic slice of life covering a few hours at a late night diner. The characters mirror those in Edward Hopper’s famous painting: Jimmy, an older man behind the counter, a young couple, Gil and Donna, and a solitary male customer, Wray,  a young black former baseball player who is a veteran of the war and who limps from an injured leg. When the young woman, Donna, shows an interest in Wray, Gil becomes jealous and threatens the black man.  The counterman intervenes with a baseball bat, vowing to hit both men if they don’t stop. Wray takes the bat from him and threatens Gil, while revealing that his “war wound” was inflicted by a gang of white soldiers who beat him with a baseball bat. Eventually things settle down and everyone goes back to his or her own business.  This is a poignant, poetic story about how lives, frustrations, and misunderstandings can interweave in an evening’s interaction.

In  Animation (2010),  “Aggie” is a 52 year-old unemployed divorced man, down on his luck, looking for work and spending his days watching cartoons on TV. His ex-wife is about to remarry, his daughter is in college across the US. in California, and his son, Oliver, is a successful broker who despises his father. Aggie is not a heavy drinker, but one evening he enters a bar and meets a young man who tells him about a job opening. Aggie begins to see his life turning around. He starts going to the gym, watching his diet, and getting ready for a job interview. The interview goes reasonably well, but Aggie has growing doubts about whether he will get the job. He gets drunk and goes to his wife’s fiance’s apartment and takes a swing at the man, then has to be  driven home by his son, who berates him as a failure. The next morning  Aggie finds an email from the HR director telling him that he didn’t get the job. He goes back to watching cartoons.  Although the story has nothing to do with music, it is a realistic, gritty picture of middle-age depression in an era of vanishing employment, a theme suitable for the blues.

The Easy Lovin’ Blues (1962) is the most complex of the five stories, focusing upon a number of characters.  Naurean is a forty-one year old widow and dance teacher who lives with her twenty year old daughter, Amanda. Naurean spends a lot of her time dreaming about her earlier life as a sought-after dance partner.

Upstairs lives a couple: a singer and a trumpeter who are drug addicts. Naurean can hear them practicing from her apartment.  Naurean has met  Rex, an unemployed professional dancer in his mid-twenties. Rex  sweeps Naurean off her feet, partly because she is living in the past, having hallucinatory dreams about her earlier conquests, particularly on the dance floor. Rex is scheming to get his hands on her dance studio. Amanda sees what’s happening but cannot convince her mother of Rex’s dishonest motives. She confides in “Trumpy” the trumpet player from upstairs, but his woman, “Ladyblue,” becomes jealous. Finally Ladyblue demands that Trumpy kill Amanda, which he does. Naurean  finds her daughter’s body then retreats into her fantasies even further, while Rex uses the opportunity to take even greater advantage of her.

I may not have found the classic blues I was looking for in New Orleans, but it resides in every page of American Blues. All of the stories are decidedly downbeat, with  a  gritty, noir flavor fitting the era in which each occurs. The author is at his best when using his poetic skills to describe the inner lives of his characters, such as Jimmy, the counterman in Nighthawks or  Naurean in The Easy Lovin’ Blues. The plots are hardly original.  Tio  has enough of an urban Of Mice and Men quality to foreshadow the tragic ending.  The Easy  Lovin’ Blues is The Glass Menagerie transported to New York in the 60s.   The familiarity of the tragic plots adds to the negative aura  surrounding each story, and the reader reads them with a sense of foreboding, waiting for the final disaster to occur. Despite the unremitting moodiness of each piece, I found that the fine writing kept me reading.  And after all, moodiness is what  the blues is all about.

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