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Reviews

James (Jim) Good
Former Dean of Arts and Professor Emeritus of English, University of Western Ontario ("Western University").



     Swingman is a novel I have been privileged to read in a number of its different stages.  I can attest to the craftsmanship and care with which it has been taken apart and put together again, reshaped to increase the suspense, and to maintain the consistency of detail.  All this allows the reader, finally, to put the characters into the context of their world and at least glimpse the larger patterns of why things happened as they did.

     A real strength of Swingman is this very world, the environment in which the characters function.  Advice often given to a writer is to write what one knows, and this book gives us a first-hand feel of the musty, pseudo-glamorous venues of the working jazz musician. From the real-world locations of the Village Vangard to the fictional Lou's Lounge, one gets an insider's sense of these places under the exhilaration of spotlights, but spotlights covering up only temporarily a basically tawdry reality.

     While a good writer can research convincingly physical locations, the real insider information here is in the minds and thoughts of the musicians themselves.  Readers are taken on an exciting journey of jazz improvisation which can produce an almost literal orgasmic experience, or end in the proverbial train-wreck of solos--and lives-- off the tracks.  Mostly, though, we see the more day-to-day environments of working musicians, their interaction with each other, their temptations, and their struggles to live more or less normal lives in a hardly normal world.

     The focal point of the book is Al Waters. It is his story; he is the "swingman" in more than one sense of that word.   How one reacts to the novel itself may well hinge on how one feels about Al Waters. We are told he is handsome, and he is presented as sexually attractive, well dressed and talented.  He is shown as witty and clever with words--although the jury is still out on whether or not a romantic hero can get away with bad puns.  He is capable of great loyalty and, for the most part, is a man of his word.  He is also capable of making bad decisions and thinking short term.  His frequent introspection does not always make him a more sympathetic character.  And, as it turns out [spoiler alert], he is a victim of his heredity and early environment.

     Is Al Waters a tragic hero of Shakespearean or Greek dimensions, or is he simply a pathetic victim caught in a web of circumstances? The answer is probably that he is neither, but rather a character of realism, not romance. He may not be Prince Hamlet, but he is not an Ophilia either. He has significant control over his own destiny, but does his fate hinge on anything one could identify as a tragic flaw?  Swingman is probably best defined as a novel of psychological realism, although its strength may finally be in the realism of the environment rather than in its more conventional psychological revelations.
[Side Comment:  I enjoy reading Jazz biographies and autobiographies, and, inevitably, Swingman invites comparisons and contrasts.  One of the big problems of a novel is that you have only words to convince and convey to a reader the extent of a musician's talent and capability. The novel is also limited by the reader's knowledge and experience of the music, so it may be like describing colour to someone who is colour blind. With Round Midnight and Bird, the music is right there and does its own convincing.  In reading about Miles Davis or Armstrong, I can check out Birth of the Cool or the solo in "West End Blues" when they are cited as crucial.  In fact, with some electronic books now, I can click on a link in the very text I am reading and get either the related music or a photo or painting, etc.   I have always thought this book would make a wonderful film, but could it ever have its own sound track simply as a book?  A new genre?   Listening to "Al Waters" play would give the "reader" a whole new sense of who and what he is! (Good luck on that, Joe, since it would also involve a whole new level of disclaimers that the book is not really autobiographical.)

     Finally, a comment or two on the writing itself, clearly one of the book's strengths. While language is used effectively to create atmosphere, the real achievement may be in the dialogue. Characters reveal themselves in the very clichés of their speech and in their vocabulary. Words are handled with respect and care. Who says what, and how it is said, is a carefully measured dimension of the book.  When people speak directly, the tension builds and the story advances; the screenplay for Swingman is not far below the surface of the book itself.

Jim Good, June 14, 2013.

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