Evan Guilford-Blake – American Blues
(Holland House, 220pp., £14.99. Review by Chris Parker)
This collection of five short stories from US playwright/poet/non-fiction writer Evan Guilford-Blake focuses on people in extremis: a dying saxophonist (‘Sonny’s Blues’), a mentally handicapped young adult and his psychopathic brother (‘Tio’s Blues’), a victim of a racially aggravated assault (‘Nighthawks’), an unemployed man unable to prevent his life disintegrating (‘Animation’) and the self-deluding inhabitants of an apartment complex whose lives fatally intertwine (‘The Easy Lovin’ Blues’). Jazz provides not only the soundtrack for these lives, but also – more importantly – the emotional and psychic energy infusing them. Of most immediate interest to jazz aficionados will be the collection’s opening story, ‘Sonny’s Blues’, which fictionalises the final days of Sonny Criss, his last couple of gigs, his relationships with a topless dancer and a thinly disguised Hampton Hawes, his [spoiler alert for those unfamiliar with Criss’s tragic end] eventual suicide while ‘Now’s the Time’ plays in the background. Although those who are allergic to what might, for (over-)simplicity’s sake, be referred to as the Geoff Dyer view of jazz musicians (doomed geniuses and social misfits – see But Beautiful, passim) may be initially suspicious, Guilford-Blake handles his material with enough sensitivity and verve (his ear for dialogue – unsurprisingly, given his track record as a playwright – fine-tuned) to allay such apprehension.
The content of these stories may be uncompromisingly specific (sexual abuse, incest, sadomasochism, racist assault and murder are all unflinchingly confronted), but the humanity and tenderness with which they are imbued (jazz playing a crucial role here – ‘a great skein of notes woven into a crazy quilt of such otherwise-inexpressible beauty that it can only exist because he weaves it’) render them universally relevant and American Blues is, as a consequence, a compellingly readable evocation of a hard, unforgiving world fitfully illuminated not only by art, but also by small acts of solidarity and kindness.