In 1948 Los Angeles, a white grifter haunts black jazz clubs and dreams of bebop fame.
Louis Greenberg is a New Yorker by birth, but after a scandal involving his fitness for wartime military service—an imposture easily guessed but not divulged until book’s end—he flees west, landing in freewheeling Los Angeles, where he sets up as a con man/lothario who uses his looks and smooth manners to separate lonely war widows from their cash. By night he’s a gifted and ambitious pianist, albeit one who can barely find a gig in the hardscrabble, mostly black world of underground clubs. An outsider himself as a Jew, Louis is most comfortable in this scene, where he befriends fellow jazzmen and meets and falls for the beautiful Beatrice—but their love is first consigned to the shadows and then doomed by the wider world’s prejudices. To try to win Beatrice back, Louis undertakes a con unlike any he’s attempted before. Despite numerous minor anachronisms and a period patter whose swing and color derive less from the needs of human conversation and more from the need to make use of authorial research, Silber mostly makes Louis’s first-person voice work. The prose is fast-paced and clever, and Louis’s ruminations about the con can be impressive. But his sexual-conquistador rap palls (“after who knows how many hours of uninterrupted sex, when it’s a pretty sure bet that all your bodily fluids have taken an express train to the sheets”), as does the trick of granting the con man an unassailable moral authority based on his racial politics.
A middling debut novel, but Silber shows much promise.