Email this review


Chock-a-block with religious imagery, mystical epiphanies, rhapsodic lectures on music theory and splendid evocations of the tawdry-but-hip jazz milieu, this sixth novel from Fuller (News Values, 1996, etc.), a journalist who is now president of the Chicago Tribune Company, reconstructs the life of a brilliant but doomed black jazzman through the eyes and ears of his quixotic biographer.

A composite drawn from the best, and worst, of John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, and Ornette Coleman, Fuller’s fictional tenor saxophonist Jackson Payne remains a musical enigma to Charles Quinlan, a white, middle-aged, recently divorced college professor on leave to write what he hopes will be the ultimate biography of an American jazz musician. Quinlan feels he knows Payne’s music well enough to hear honesty, despair, confusion, drug-induced euphoria, religious revelation, and lots of pain. But what of the man himself? Digging up Payne’s Army buddies, agents, sidemen, lovers, wives, and rivals, Quinlan predictably gains some insights, but they’re not enough to settle the disturbing ambiguities: Did Payne, born poor in Chicago, die of a drug overdose, or was he murdered by those he had betrayed? What relationship did a sexually abusive Baptist minister and a prison cabal of homosexual Muslims have on his bitter affairs with women and on his last-chance attempt to redeem his daughter from prostitution? Quinlan embarks on an awkward romance with Lasheen, the secretary of a private investigator he’d hired. A frustrated concert pianist who favors Bach over Basie, Lasheen can’t let Quinlan forget the subtle racism that taints his vision. Quinlan’s meandering interview transcripts and quirky notebook jottings end as an ironic metaphor for his endeavor: biographers will never know why artists do the things they do, but the truth-seeker’s journey offers enough even to make the failure worthwhile.

An optimistic, intricately layered rewrite of The Aspern Papers, with grimy jazz clubs standing in wonderfully for James’s sinking Venice.

Pub Date: June 14th, 2000
ISBN: 0-375-40535-6
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15th, 2000