DIRTY BIRD BLUES by Clarence Major


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 Major, a prolific man of letters, seems to have abandoned for good the experimental styles that characterized much of his early work (My Amputations, 1986, etc.). His latest is a quite conventional morality tale dressed up with his extensive, if somewhat academic, knowledge of Afro-American slang. The lexicographer in Major (Juba to Jive: A Dictionary of African-American Slang, not reviewed) gets the better of him in an otherwise simple narrative about black life circa 1950. Manfred Banks, 25, born in Georgia, hates the winters in Chicago. An aspiring bluesman, he can't find day work and spends most of his waking hours in pursuit of the ``Dirty Bird'' (Old Crow whiskey). His wife has taken their baby girl to live with a preacher man, and his only friend, guitarist Solomon Thigpen, is also singing the ``dirty bird blues.'' A violent episode with the preacher and the police encourages Man to head to Omaha, where his older sister is leading a model life; her husband even lands Man a job at a steel plant, while Man begins gigging on weekends at the local hot spot. Soon Man's family joins him, and prospects look good until some racists at work decide to harass him. He retreats further into the bottle. When Solomon comes west, Man's wife fears the worst. But a long, drunken night, during which Man sees ``something deep and ugly come out'' in himself, sets him on the road to sobriety. This simple tale is punctuated with long stream-of-consciousness dream sequences in which Manfred imagines what success might be like, worries about losing his wife to Jesus, and sees himself lynched. Major also employs an extensive knowledge of the blues idiom- -Manfred is constantly thinking in lyrics, even if the moment doesn't seem to warrant it. There's a powerful, persuasive use of language here, but it's suspended in too studied a tale--one that never gets cooking.

Pub Date: June 1st, 1996
ISBN: 1-56279-083-8
Page count: 256pp
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 1996


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