Two art forms are identified as being distinctly American, yet neither the movies nor jazz seem wholly American. The movies were pioneered in Europe and owe much to the skills of one group of outsiders in early twentieth-century American society, the Jews. Jazz was born in that least American of cities, New Orleans, and its murky origin lies somewhere in the mixture of those other two outsider groups, Creoles and Blacks. The individual who has perhaps the best claim to being the father of jazz was the grandson of a slave, Charles Joseph Bolden, popularly known as Buddy Bolden, who was born in 1877 and died in the Louisiana State Insane Asylum in 1931. Only one photograph of Buddy Bolden survives and no recordings of his music exist, but legends about him are many, most of which make him out to be a much bigger and more swaggering figure than the relatively slight man who appears in that grainy picture, and who pioneered a new form of music in the gloriously named Funky Butt Hall.
Louis Maistros, who runs a jazz record shop in New Orleans, has added a new legend to the long list of tales told about Buddy Bolden in this, his first novel, though Bolden himself plays only a minor part in the story. Our real focus is on the Morningstar family. Noonday Morningstar is a fire and brimstone preacher whose wife died upon the birth of their fifth child, Typhus. By the time he is nine, Typhus is working for a local abortionist, Doctor Jack, ferrying each foetus to the slow-moving murk of the Mississippi where he will shape the unborn child into a fish and release it into a new life. Typhus’s sister, Diphtheria (Noonday named all his children for diseases, since that is what eases most people’s route to God), is mooning over an alcoholic 14-year-old cornet player, Buddy, who creates an awful racket in an illegal gin joint also frequented by Doctor Jack.
This is the situation in 1891 when the novel opens. The previous autumn (the novel is full of chronological shifts; in the second and longest part of the novel it is not at all clear what sequence certain events occur in) a bunch of Sicilian immigrants had been rounded up for the murder of a police chief, but now they are due to be released for lack of evidence. Before that can happen, however, a mob forces its way into the prison and the Sicilians are lynched, except that one of their number appears to be dead already. This is Antonio Carolla; Beauregard, one of the wardens, tried to help him escape, but Carolla was high on morphine and wandered into some strange other realm from which the mob dragged him already on the point of death. And the moment that Antonio died, his one-year-old son Dominic became possessed of an evil spirit.
Noonday is called to the boy, but becomes alarmed and runs away, though later, in the night, he decides he must salve his conscience by returning to help the boy. Meanwhile Marshall Trumbo, a journalist who covered the lynching and who is now looking for a further human interest story, decides he must get medical help for the child. In a novel populated almost entirely by the dispossessed, the black, the creole, the immigrant, Trumbo is the only white character portrayed sympathetically. With nowhere else to turn, Trumbo summons Doctor Jack from the gin joint where Bolden is playing, and Doctor Jack hurries along with Typhus, Diptheria, Buddy, and Beauregard in tow. They arrive just as Noonday attempts his exorcism and, in an alarming sequence of events in which all present play a part, the evil spirit is drawn out of the child first into Typhus then into Noonday, who is promptly killed by Beauregard.
The novel now jumps forward 15 years to 1906, and rather loses its way in the process. The first section is short, sharp, and uses action to set the scene, so although you get a very vivid sense of the underbelly of the city you see it in flashes and glimpses. All of a sudden the pace of the novel changes: now there is a sense that Maistros has to set the scene before introducing the action. And since, as I mentioned above, scene-setting involves achronological dodging about, flashbacks, and memories and events told out of order, there is an extended period during which it seems that Maistros is more concerned with telling us about New Orleans than he is with telling us a story about New Orleans. To really give a sense of how busy this novel is, however, I need to describe some of the major plot threads.
With Noonday dead, the Morningstar family is in disarray. Typhus still works for Doctor Jack, but he stopped growing in the moment that his father died. (There is a lot in this novel that presents things happening to the father being visited directly upon the son; all the tragedies that occur in this novel can be laid directly at the door of the previous generation.) Diptheria had a child by Buddy Bolden but is now separated from him and is working as a high-class prostitute. Meanwhile another brother, the rather simple Dropsy, is running with a teenage tearaway who goes by the name of Jim Jam Jump. The pair specialise in fleecing gullible northern (white) visitors, who are always presented as so avaricious as to deserve everything they get, but Jim’s real obsession is to acquire by any means possible Buddy Bolden’s cornet.
Jim’s amorality (it turns out he is really Dominic Carolla, and has a fragment of that evil spirit still inside him) and greed, Dropsy’s innocence, and revelations concerning the true relationship between Typhus and Doctor Jack, build towards an inevitable tragedy. Meanwhile we meet two other characters locked in their own long battle (its origins date back to the 1850s): Malvina Latour, an aging voodoo queen steadily losing contact with the real world as she deals with the petty day to day concerns of her long-dead sister, and Marcus Nobody Special, a gravekeeper who spends his days tending the grave of his long-dead lover and his nights fishing for the reborn soul of his aborted child. The war between these two, built on pettiness and misunderstandings, grows to affect all the other characters as a massive storm sweeps through the city (sounding intentional echoes of Katrina).
There is simply too much going on in this novel for it to be entirely successful. As a portrait of New Orleans just at that point when jazz was being born, it is superb, written with genuine affection and a real feel for the place. As a supernatural horror it follows a course that is predictable, but it does so adroitly and, particularly in the characters of the Morningstars and Buddy Bolden, with sufficient idiosyncracy and flair to make it appealing. But with the introduction of Malvina Latour, and the releasing of uncontrolled voodoo forces upon the city that proves to be the driving force of the whole novel, there is a descent into cliché that is dispiriting. And the ending in which the novel’s multifarious dead meet beneath the waters of the Mississippi resorts to a sentimentality that would have seemed cloyingly sweet even during the Victorian age in which it is set. The power of the first part of the book, and the way it is dissipated in the second, suggests that Maistros had a strong sense of place and time and image to set his novel in motion, but not quite enough control of plot to steer it towards a fully satisfactory ending. Should he ever manage to tie all these elements together, he will make a formidable talent.