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
[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.