Much of what is marketed as “jazz fiction” is earnest but unsatisfying because of the difficulty in creating believable characters. In fact, the two most fulfilling jazz novels of the last decade have been Frederick Turner’s 1929 and Roddy Doyle’s OH, PLAY THAT THING! — both of which had larger than-life figures Bix Beiderbecke and Louis Armstrong as their centers.
Many of the more traditional attempts at the genre also relied on predictable characters: the doomed pianist or saxophonist, devoted to his music but unable to have meaningful relationships; the doomed drug addict; the tubercular musician; the musician slowly going insane. (Women, by the way, are always the devoted mother, the devoted girlfriend, the faithless wife.) You begin to get the picture.
That’s why NOW’S THE TIME, a novel by Larry Strauss, is such a pleasure. For one thing, its protagonist, Didi Heron, is an unflappable woman trumpeter (her day gig is in teaching middle-school geography) who doesn’t see herself as anything unusual — thus no novel-as-faminist-polemic here. Didi isn’t perfect, but she has yearnings and a quest — a quest that forms the backbone of this book. I should also say that, through Didi, Strauss has given us a candid glimpse into what goes on in a musician’s head — not starry romanticism or bitter cynicism, but an amused, perceptive, often unsentimental view of the world. Did’s voice is a pleasure, and she quickly becomes real, not a thin disguise for the author’s opinions.
I won’t give away more than eight bars of the plot, but Didi, scuffling through occasional gigs, has a love life and a lineage. Her father, a jazz pianist killed very young in an auto accident, was a member of an imaginary but wholly convincing Fifties bop qiuntet. As Didi searches for a mythical tape recording of the group and has adventures coast-to-coast, meeting a variety of club owners, family members, and aging musicians, she discovers a good deal about herself in ways that trascend formulaic “coming-of-age,” because Didi is clearly an adult, changing from chapter to chapter.
I’m skeptical of novels advertised as “good reads,” but I read this one eagerly, asking the question so essential to fiction, “What’s going to happen next?” Strauss doesn’t get in the way of his story: he creates his people, sets them on their particular courses, and records what takes place in sharp, straightforward prose. I hope that we get to follow Didi in a later book: I was sorry to see her go.
Here’s a “jazz fiction” novel that is true to both parts of the name. NOW’S THE TIME is published by Kearney Street Books: details at www.kearneystreetbooks.com. And it’s also available here: http://www.amazon.com/Nows-Time-Larry-Strauss/dp/0972370676/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1277580826&sr=1-1