Owen Martell – Intermission
(William Heinemann, 181pp., £12.99. Book Review by Chris Parker)
There is undoubtedly a great novel to be written about jazz, given the complexities of the issue-rich social milieu in which it is played and the subtle unpredictability of the music (and its practitioners), but to date there is, arguably, only one contender for such an accolade: Rafi Zabor’s The Bear Comes Home. Other attempts mostly fall at the first hurdle, the creation of credible, unsensationalised characters; offensive clichés such as the face-scratching strung-out junky, the tragic alcoholic genius, the exploitative clubowner/agent and the supportive (and generally doomed) ‘good-sport’ girlfriend – or, if the protagonist is female, the abusive, violent boyfriend – litter and disfigure the literature. So it’s good to report that Owen Martell, whose first English-language novel this is (his previous two were in Welsh), has taken as the subject of Intermission one of the most quietly spoken, serious-minded figures in the music: Bill Evans. It takes up his story in 1961, concentrating on the pianist’s devastated reaction to the death (in a car accident) of his trio’s bassist, Scott LaFaro, and describes Evans’s attempt to answer the question he himself posed at that time: ‘When you have evolved a concept of playing which depends on the specific personalities of outstanding players, how do you start again when they are gone?’
Evans (as sensitively documented in one of Martell’s acknowledged sources, Peter Pettinger’s How My Heart Sings) was unable to play for a good while – ‘Musically everything seemed to stop. I didn’t even play at home’ – and dismayed his brother, Harry (then studying for a PhD at Columbia), and his sister-in-law Pat by withdrawing into heroin addiction. Martell’s first 60-odd pages (‘The Petrushka Chord’) detail their well-meaning but ultimately futile attempts to look after Evans, and the book is at its most touching when it depicts the only relationship in which Evans seems at all comfortable: his rapport with his niece Debby, celebrated in one of Evans’s most famous compositions. His brother, reduced to helplessly shadowing Evans around New York and putting him up in his cramped apartment, but unable to connect with him in any more meaningful way, is the first of three family members whose unsuccessful attempts to comfort the bereaved pianist are described in Intermission, and the remainder of the novel takes place in Florida, where his parents, Mary and Harry Sr, also try to bring their son out of his isolation and depression.
It would be heartening to report that Martell’s treatment of these family interventions presents readers (as the book’s blurb claims) with ‘an intense and moving portrait of the burden of grief’, but unfortunately all four main characters remain shadowy and oddly insubstantial, their individuality muffled by Martell’s narrative technique, which generally eschews the presentation of action and dialogue in favour of a series of interior monologues interspersed with routine activity, in which the relatively obscure – ‘It was as if you could feel your way, suddenly, around a house whose walls were only as they were because you thought them so.
‘But only traces of the structure remained come the morning. Impulses that were archaeological suddenly, like ancient footings, and visible only from above, in the weeds that had abounded in the meantime. They existed not to inform daylight and activity but to sit in permanence outside them, a faint calling across distances that had reverted by then to their habitual calculations of non-arrival’ – rubs uneasily against the mundane: ‘Mary turned onto her side, towards Harry, and tucked her elbow in tight to her belly even though the bed was big enough and her husband surprisingly respectful of the division of space.’
The blurb also claims that the novel provides ‘a unique representation of the jazz scene in the early 1960s’, by ‘conjuring […] a pivotal moment in American music and culture’, but Martell, concentrating – as he does throughout – on the thought processes of concerned family members, seems strangely uninterested in Evans’s music, the people he plays it with, or the locations in which he performs, so readers desiring enlightenment concerning post-Kind of Blue jazz in general and Evans’s character in particular might be better served by Pettinger’s above-mentioned biography than by this somewhat oblique – if sensitive and worthy – account.
Intermission at Heinemann Books