A panoramic portrait of jazz-era Chicago, where, against a background of speak-easies, racial tension and gangsters, a Jewish boy with a talent for “the devil’s music” observes and participates in the vibrancy of the day.
Chicago in 1915, inspiration for local writer L. Frank Baum’s Oz, “a place where you could package beef, ship wheat and make a fortune,” emerges as perhaps the most memorable character in Morris’ (The River Queen, 2007, etc.) new novel. Herself Chicago-raised, the author moves fluidly among the city's beachfronts and back streets, nightclubs and sweatshops, introducing a sizable cast of characters but focusing on three in particular. The first is Benny Lehrman, born with the century, an instinctive jazz pianist and composer. He first crosses paths with Pearl Chimbrova when both are children, on the fateful day the steamship Eastland sinks in the river, killing 844 people, including three of Pearl’s brothers. Last there is Napoleon Hill, a black jazz trumpeter whose struggles and defiance are part of the novel’s emphasis on racial injustice. All three seek escape, Benny and Napoleon in their music, Pearl in the deep waters of Lake Michigan, where she swims. Their destinies are intertwined with the city’s history, evoked by Morris through events large and small and the presence of famous figures: Rudolf Valentino, Louis Armstrong, Leopold and Loeb, and, of course, Al Capone. Sometimes evocative, sometimes overburdened by research, this is fiction as urban biography, the city's hectic years connected via the hazy, overlapping fates of three particular faces in the crowd.
Atmospheric but amorphous, Morris’ restless novel works hard to encompass a cultural moment.