In this literary novel, a black Southern blues guitarist in the 1940s runs north after a murder but wonders how long he can escape the law.
The tall woman dancing “as if she were some Saturday-night sin, black magic” at Sunny’s Blues Shack has a powerful hold on guitar player Arfel Booker. He’s got to have her, as he tells his guitar, Blue Fire. But on his second visit to the blueswoman’s cabin in the woods, Arfel wakes from a night of blackout drinking to discover her gone—and in bed is the dead body of a white man, his throat slashed with Arfel’s knife. The young man’s only hope is to flee northward, hopping trains and putting some distance between him and the law. In an unnamed northern city, Arfel finds a place to live, a blues bar where he can play, and some new friends, such as bluesmen Lemontree Johnson and Knock-Kneed Kirkland. Even though this new life is working well, Arfel feels shamed by his past. He tells his guitar, “What me and Tom…Tom Mickens used to do down by the river with those girls. Was-wasn’t right, Blue Fire.” When a white bounty hunter comes to town looking for Arfel, his capture feels inevitable. His friends rally to help him, but can Arfel evade his sins forever? Gray (Black Bloods, 2015, etc.) writes in an often songlike cadence; dialogue and striking images powerfully evoke the lives of his characters. Here’s Gin-Water Pete, Arfel’s fellow blues player, on running north: “You know how to travel, you an’ Blue Fire, how—on the back roads, Arfel. Keep there. Always on the back roads. Don’t veer. Hardly wander.” The compression and freshness here resemble poetry. The book’s ending, however, may unsettle, especially when readers discover more about Arfel. A last-minute ironic twist seems very unlikely.
Though the ending falters, this novel sings.