A sprawling novel detailing the life of a 20th-century blues musician.
Akley’s lengthy fiction debut tells the story of a blues musician named David Threnody, who was “born in an apartment above a pawn shop on 129 N 8th Street in East St. Louis, Illinois…in winter, the 28th of February 1918.” Akley uses a variety of techniques—including journal entries and a long stretch of prose structured as a stage play—to first outline the lives of David’s parents and then to tell David’s own life from his childhood to his slow, spotty entrance onto the music scene in New Orleans and its environs. “Remember laughter is a tool like anything else,” David’s mother writes. “It’s a tool for Hope.” Yet there’s barely any humor in this long book and virtually no hope, either. Instead, through the viewpoints of a handful of characters but always returning to center on David, Akley takes readers through the ups and downs of David’s life, his music, his problems with the law, and his struggles with drugs and alcohol. David’s morose and brooding nature governs the story, seen most directly in excerpts from his own journals: “No good habits come from idle time. Bodies just rot that way.” Through the long, complicated stories of David’s love life and tense family relationships, Akley shapes a narrative of a down-and-out bluesman who grows into a kind of hard-won wisdom. “He was kind of a preacher you know,” one character says of him. “And his songs were laments. Like it was all vanity to him. A striving after the wind.” Akley consistently displays great skill in both moving the story briskly along despite its great length and in controlling the tempo, sometimes speeding it up and peppering it with tragedies or sometimes slowing it down and filling it with memorable philosophical observations: “Truth is memory when you’re sad.” “It’s the present moment when you’re happy.” A sordid, off-tempo ending adds extra resonance to the story of David’s bleak but fascinating life.
An absorbing artist’s story with a similar structure but darker tone than Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy (1961).