- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 4, 2002


By Madison Smartt Bell

Pantheon, $24, 306 pages


Madison Smartt Bell is in the midst of writing a sweeping trilogy of novels set in 1790s Haiti, in the time of Toussaint LOuverture and the slave uprisings he led against the islands French colonial masters. His new work of fiction, however, a break from this massive and impressive undertaking, is quite a departure: a novel about a group of musicians specializing in blues and rock n roll standards that travels from seedy bar to seedy bar, playing gig after gig, mainly in the American South.

And though a few subjects — race and violence, for example — thematically connect "Anything Goes" with Mr. Bells recent work, the tone and style of this new book are markedly different. Compare passages from it (light, fast, steeped in vernacular speech) with passages from the recent "Master of the Crossroads" (ecstatic, elevated, linguistically rich) and you might be surprised to learn that the same writer composed them. Few contemporary writers I can think of could have pulled off so chameleonic an act.

"Anything Goes" is a classic road novel: entertaining and swiftly paced, in which the physical journey embarked on by the characters mirrors the inner journey, the coming of age, of the protagonist. The book is narrated by Jesse, the bass player of the band, and at 20, its youngest member. His life is seemingly without direction, as if the touring and the many women he beds but can barely recall are merely a way to pass the time.

"I didnt have this kind of idea very often," Jesse says at one point, "but it struck me now that I hadnt got very far along with my life … whatever it was supposed to be about… . And already it seemed like I ought to go back and start over." He spends much of the book in a "detached and dreamy" state, "like I was drifting … no sail and no power, not knowing where Id ground, or caring either."Jesses journeys to the so-called Black Cat bars of Myrtle Beach and Key West, among other places, along with his band mates (singer Perry, drummer Allston, guitarist Chris, and later Estelle, the lead singer modeled, I think, on Janis Joplin), represent his attempt to escape from his father, a former drunk who has always blamed Jesse for the disappearance of his wife (she fled home shortly after Jesses birth) — and who beat the boy with regularity.

The way Jesse responds to the violence in his life is one of the subjects of the book. When his father would beat him, we are told, he never once struck back; instead he absorbed the blows as if they were his birthright. Toward the end of the book, Jesse is attacked by a group of college students, pummeled in fact, but again, eerily, he refuses to hit back: "I just stood there and let [the first fist] hit me. So long since Id been hit like that! — it felt like a homecoming, bittersweet." There is something pleasurable for Jesse in this violence, redolent as it is of home; the bittersweet sensation of being punched connects him to the father he detests but longs as well to love.

Early in the novel, Jesses father, now sober and contrite, tries to reenter his sons life. One of the main questions that Mr. Bell explores here is whether Jesses father can actually become the father figure the young man has for so long lacked. For much of the book, the role of surrogate father is assumed by Perry, some 20 years older than Jesse. The trouble is, Perry, who keeps a tight rein on the band, seems to inhabit Jesse completely, so headstrong is he, so influential are his ideas on music and life. While analyzing a song with a girl named Lorraine, Jesse realizes that "it was Perrys line of talk that had been coming out of my mouth — like there was some sort of Perry inside of me."

Jesse relies on Perry for guidance and support, but this reliance proves stifling. "I never had to bother polishing my own opinions," Jesse admits. "It was just as easy to use his." But there is pressure building within him to strike out on his own, and slowly he gives way to the desire and the compulsion to write his own music (something Perry strongly discourages), to come to terms with his past and with the person he has become by expressing himself in song.

And so, the book is about breaking free, about finding ones own way in the world. Symbolic of what keeps Jesse pent up, constrained, is the painful tendonitis that plagues his hand, which results, Jesse thinks, "from repetitive motion." We might think of this repetitive motion as not only that of his hand strumming a guitar but also as the banal, unchanging routine of his life. Only when Jesse breaks free of Perrys control and writes his own music, becoming in essence his own man, will this pain ultimately subside.

We know that Jesse could evolve into a successful creative artist, not necessarily because of the lyrics he ends up composing (which seem fairly ordinary to me) but because we see him on occasion transforming what he sees around him into poetry.

Take, for example, this sentence: "I held that last note hanging in the air like a sheet of hammered foil, till Allston shattered it with a cymbal smash and the shreds came glittering down on everything like snow." And Jesse describes Estelles voice "spreading like honey, like red liquor in the little room, in the sunset hour when the light would come in slantwise through the window and pick up the gold wind on the Hummingbirds bass strings, would even make the dust floating off the furniture look gilded."

Of course, figuring out how much of this is Jesse the narrator and how much is Mr. Bell the novelist is tricky. We know that Jesse is young, and probably uneducated, too. His voice is generally colloquial, almost simple. So is it plausible that he would use a word such as "ostentatious?" Or liken the loud and imperceptible strains of music he hears to "the threads of a Persian carpet, or walls of Arabic calligraphy you couldnt understand," thus calling on a world of experience for his metaphor that is probably foreign to him? At any rate, the flaw is a minor one.

"Anything Goes" may not be the kind of grand, epic work of literature Mr. Bell has written in recent years, but it is a pleasant interlude nonetheless: gentle, sweet, and thoroughly enjoyable.

Sudip Bose is associate editor of Preservation magazine.

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