In this near-future novel, British author Crace (The Pesthouse, 2007, etc.) examines the meaning of courage for one jazz musician.
As a young tenor sax player, Leonard Lessing alternated among composing, gigging and political activism. In 2006, he followed fellow activist Nadia from England to Austin, Texas, believing they might have a future together. Fat chance. Nadia had already hooked up with Russian-American Maxie Lermon, a violence-prone faux-leftist who corralled Leonard into a three-person anti-Bush demo to prove his manhood. Maxie was disabled, Nadia arrested; Leonard, highly principled but too well-mannered for the barricades, fled the scene. Where Leonard could prove himself was onstage. Years later, in England, his quartet stranded by bad weather, he played a gig alone for a full house and a radio audience. His performance was a triumph. “Valiant,” said an unknown audience member, Francine, who would become his wife. Crace begins his story in 2024; Leonard and Francine have been married nine years. Suddenly, Maxie re-enters Leonard’s life. He’s in the news for having taken some hostages in a nearby town to protest an upcoming summit. Aside from that long Texas flashback, the novel focuses on Leonard’s bumbling attempts to defuse the crisis, with the help of Maxie’s 17-year-old daughter Lucy. For an author much respected for his groundbreaking work, this is a surprisingly conventional story, one that leaves us with a nagging feeling that Crace hasn’t fully engaged with his theme. Leonard is a dreamer; his favorite fantasy is fighting fascism in the Spanish Civil War. Maxie is a brutal man of action; but in making him a loud-mouthed bore, hasn’t Crace stacked the deck? Lucy is vibrant (she has her own reckless adolescent courage), but the older women, Nadia especially, are sketchy. The near-future setting is little more than an embellishment.
Though Crace is never dull, nothing else catches fire like that wonderful description of Leonard’s solo gig.