In Gussow’s (Mister Satan’s Apprentice: A Blues Memoir, 2009) lively road novel, an American grad student spends a wild few weeks as a street musician in Europe.
In the late 1980s, McKay is an English Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University who’s been having some relationship trouble with his girlfriend. When his friend Paul asks him to go to Europe with him, McKay readily agrees to the enticing offer, figuring he can blow through Europe with his harmonicas and amp in tow. A blues fan, McKay is excited about the prospect of playing live music in front of foreigners. He’s someone deeply embedded in the literary world, but his knowledge of and love for music are just as strong. Landing in Pairs, he and Paul check in to a small pension, take an obligatory trip to the Louvre, then it’s out on the streets to start busking, playing music for money. So begins a five-week odyssey, a wild, jazzy tale that includes rollicking musical performances, running from the cops, drunken debauchery, and a diverse array of colorful characters. The meanings of the songs are paramount to McKay: “You’re skiing down a slope where every blue-note is a mogul and you’re working your edges hard, shooting for the sweet spot between major and minor where the world suddenly flies open and the truest thing you know rises to meet you.” Soon, McKay leaves Pairs for the south of France, with subsequent trips to Italy, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland. Though the cities outside France are less wild, there are still plenty of adventures to be had and plenty of girls to chase. Gussow’s tale is a fast-paced, enjoyable one, with the harmonica blues angle putting a unique spin on the European trip narrative. It is a nostalgic story but thankfully unsentimental, as rigorous detail and descriptions bring the story to life in explosive ways. McKay on the street in Paris drinking Heineken while playing “Sweet Home Chicago” is certainly cool, yet Gussow outdoes himself with the novel’s revolving cast of unique characters, whose crazy times and back stories are endlessly entertaining. The novel is about the trip of a lifetime, going to Europe to forget everything, but it’s also a story of friendship, helped tremendously by Gussow’s ear for music and dialogue.
A strongly written, cool novel about being young, bluesy, and free on a vagabond adventure in Europe.