by Bart Schneider
Viking Penguin, $24.95
Reviewed by Jim Linduff
A look into the soul of a man and the music he loves is the theme of this ambitious first novel by Bart Schneider, editor of the Hungry Mind Review, an independent book review magazine out of St. Paul, Minnesota.
Schneider is also the editor of Race: An Anthology in the First Person, a compilation of articles written by a group of contemporary writers and social leaders. In BlueBossa, he incorporates some of these racial issues.
The story takes place in San Francisco in the '70s at the time of the Patty Hearst kidnapping. A failed jazz trumpet player, Ronnie Reboulet, struggles with efforts to rebuild his family; a family torn apart partially by his own failures.
Reboulet—a drug addict with bad chops and a self destructive lifestyle—is loosely based on Chet Baker. An alcoholic ex-wife, a girlfriend who is a breast cancer survivor and a long lost daughter who returns home with a racially mixed child make up the characters with whom he interacts. The story unfolds in short interconnected vignettes describing the family journey from the viewpoints of all of the characters.
While the story ends in a predictable manner—Reboulet manages to balance his commitments to his family with returning to play in the clubs—the book's value lies in the often poignant descriptions of the lives of the characters, illustrating situations which are contradictory and intense. Schneider paints these scenes with empathy and, at times, in a short song-like manner, as if he were improvising solos on a melody.
However, I wish Schneider had treated some themes in a less stereotypical manner, particularly the depiction of the protagonist. A portrait of a jazz musician as a drug addicted, insecure fool, incapable of achieving self respect and unable to take responsibility for his life reoccurs in almost every treatment of the subject. Also, the use of Chet Baker clones seems to be multiplying. For example, James Lee Burke, in his excellent novel, Sunset Limited also introduces a Chet Baker type character to portray the horrible, swift response given to people who cross the mob and drug dealers.
The theme of the interracial couple is also drawn from stock types—a caring, but overwhelmed mother and an absentee father who views his child as a trophy, but sees no responsibility for raising it. Even the cancer victim girlfriend and the alcoholic ex-wife join the stereotypes list.
BlueBossa had the potential of being a wonderful description of the jazz experience, but fell captive to cliches. The music from which the book is titled is full of exhilaration and hope. Kenny Dorham, despite being overshadowed by others of his time—Dizzy, Clifford and Fats, kept on writing and playing his music. Some day an author will create a character who conveys these experiences. Based on this first novel, Mr. Schneider has the ability and understanding to do so. I look forward to more of his work.
Jim Linduff teaches jazz history in the Continuing Education Department of the University of Cincinnati.