The story of history’s most enigmatic jazz trumpeter becomes a touchstone for a troubled doctor and her daughter.
Talented poet and novelist Christopher (The Bestiary, 2007, etc.) returns to the rich vein of early-20th-century American history for his elegiac and expressive sixth novel. The book opens on a hotel room in New Orleans circa 1904, where seven musicians huddle over their instruments in stifling heat. Christopher captures this long-whispered moment perfectly, as Charles “Buddy” Bolden and his boys lay down three inspired recordings of a song known as “Number 2”—aficionados know it as “Tiger Rag” today— before fading into the night. From this point, the author folds this rumored bit of jazz history into a modern-day search for the lost cylinders. His protagonist is Ruby Cardillo, a hot mess of a divorcee who’s taken to only wearing purple and downing numerous bottles of Bordeaux. She recruits her daughter, jazz pianist and recovering addict Devon, to drive with her to New Orleans so that Ruby can deliver a speech about anesthesiology. In New York, they meet with music dealer Emmett Browne, who believes that Devon’s grandfather Valentine Owen was a compatriot of Bolden’s who may have squirreled away the legendary recordings. The manic Ruby and damaged Devon’s journey makes for fine drama, and Christopher delivers well-drawn and convincing characters in all their screwed-up glory. But the book’s wonder comes from Bolden's downward spiral into alcoholism, schizophrenia and dementia, even as Christopher captures one brief moment of clarity. “In 1931 Charles Bolden picked up where he had left off in 1906, just that once stepping back into real time by way of his music, which had thrived in the outside world while he himself was wasting away,” he writes. “It was as if, for a few minutes, without being remotely aware of it, much less imagining the possibility in such grand terms, he had been allowed to participate in his own immortality.”
Red hot and cool.