Review of the book. I read the 13 longlisted books for the 1011 Man Booker, and this was my favorite; Barnes, the winner, was my second favorite.
A story told in parts alternating between 1992 and 1939/1940, the main characters are three black men who met in Weimar Germany playing together in a jazz group. Weimar life has been described (over described?), and certainly black US jazz musicians are an often glimpsed part of the background. But this book brings that world, or at least the portion inhabited by these three musicians, to the fore. Two of the men (Skip and our narrator, Sid) grew up together in Baltimore and the third (Heiro) was born in Germany. The parts located in 1939/1940 have an incessant and accelerating tension of claustraphobia and boredom mixed with hightened anxiety as the three, joined by other characters, hide out in Berlin and then in Paris as they attempt to evade the nazis (called the Boot). This is obviously not an unusual plot. But what adds a new twist is that the only two characters in any real danger are the blond, jewish, pianist and Hiero, the black trumpeter born in Germany. The US passports held by Skip & Sid served as at least some protection against what was going on, particularly in Paris. As the narrator said, their problem was that "we was officially degenerate".
Because they have a place to stay in both Berlin and Paris, and at least some protection, the tension of the war itself is often a background narrative, not the main story line. And that other story line is the friendships, betrayals and loses that accumulate as they play their jazz, trying to record the perfect take of a riff on a popular nazi song. As time goes on in Paris more and more is sacrificed for the sake of this album, which is never properly completed, though an outtake survives and later leads to a documentary film that is a focus of the 1992 parts.
This is not a jazz book, I certainly wouldn't call jazz a central theme of the book. But it contains some of the most lyrical descriptions of jazz playing that I have read. Describing the first time the three played with Louis Armstrong (who is vibrantly described in a short section of the book) the author describes how each of the three enters into and intertwines on the song 'Old Town Wrangler'.
"And then, real late, Armstrong come in.
I was shocked. Ain't no bold brass at all. He just trilled in a breezy, casual way, like he giving some dame a second glance in the street without breaking stride. It was just so calm, so effortlessly itself."
But the element of this book that made it work for me was the narrator. He is the quintessential every man. He discovers that he isn't a great jazz player, and he was willing to do anything, even betrayal, to be great, in the game. After leaving Europe he comes back to Baltimore and lives the non-glamourous life, working for decades as a medical transcriptionist. The book opens as he is invited to the Berlin opening of a documentary film about Heiro, and Chip convinces Skip to attend. The continual self-doubt and frailty of Skip is in contrast to Chip's bombast. But Skip's shortfalls are those of a person who has lived a full life and is aware that he has much to regret. The straight-forward narrative reads like someone being honest with us and himself. But throughout the book he, and the reader, learn that things aren't as they appear, and that our emotions color both our actions and our perceptions. The narrative, and the narrator, feel alive and believable. Even the ever annoying Chip we learn to appreciate, as you appreciate an old family member you never really liked, but have learned to accept.
The book isn't perfect. Calling women "janes" hundreds of times throughout the book wears thin, and someone who spent decades doing transcriptions, even medical transcriptions, is unlikely to write "we et in silence". And the only female character, Delilah, was not very believable or well sketched. But these are minor complaints.