Swann’s (Paint with Words, 2016) historical novel stars a young Jewish woman discovering the Twin Cities jazz scene in the early 1960s.
Minnesota, 1963. Sarah Rosen is a student at the University of Minnesota, commuting from her parents’ home in St. Louis Park. She’s bored with her life and a little lonely when she meets an interesting-looking painter at a local art show. “I just need to catch some air,” the artist tells her, when she offers him a ride home to Minneapolis. “I could use some good music to cut loose with. Wanna dig some jazz?” The music is like nothing she’s heard before. She later writes in her diary: “He opened a door to another world, a world of people really getting down! Who, I could tell, must live harder and deeper than anyone I know. The music was so hot and sophisticated it makes what I’m used to sound like child’s play.” Soon after, Sarah’s wealthy dad dies suddenly of a heart attack, and her 16-year-old sister, Rachel—who has been fighting nonstop with her parents recently—uses his death as an opening to run away. Things take a dark turn when Rachel makes the mistake of trusting the wrong man in Minneapolis. He sleeps with her and then sells her into a prostitution ring. In order to find her sister, Sarah turns to her new jazz friends: the painter Jim K. Jensen and his friend Gil Montgomery, an alcoholic poet. Interconnected with Sarah and her scene are the stories of numerous other characters, including musicians Joe Citro and Boris Simpson and supper-club dancer “Watusi Lucy.” The streets of the Twin Cities are fraught with many dangers and temptations, but the seekers who flock there are looking for one high in particular: jazz and the freedom the music represents.
Swann’s writing, with its period details and slang, manages to capture the culture—and oftentimes the naiveté—of the time and place. The narration, however, is often stiff: “Sarah had never seen live Latin dancing. She was fascinated. The dancing was sexy and hot. So hot! Yet sophisticated too, totally seductive. The dancers were mostly black and they knew the dance as well as a Latino man in a white suit and white shoes.” Other times, the prose is elegant and evocative: “The band was finished setting up. It swung, lifting its listeners in a wave of enthusiastic approval. It kicked like a mule, punched like Cassius Clay. It was a profound, almost terrible realization for Joe, that in the future music less than this would always be found wanting.” Swann presents the music scene from myriad perspectives, and there is a real pleasure in watching his characters interact and pursue their dreams. The ending wraps up a little too neatly, however, and the wooden quality of the language—and the dialogue in particular—keeps the novel from being as immersive as it should be.
A lively but stilted novel of the blossoming jazz scene in the Midwest.