A jazzy, colloquial first novel full of the hustle of a downbeat Chicago record store.
By the early ’80s, two wildly different lives converge at the Record Palace just north of Chicago’s Loop. A young white student from Los Angeles, Cindy, presently studying art history at the University of Chicago and hungry for a “brave new life,” stumbles into the seedy, cool record store owned by Acie Stevenson, an old-timey black man in a hairnet, now 59, once a music producer, and well known as the brother of bebop bassist William Stevenson and as having a mother who was a noted painter. But William has just died in New York, and his disputatious white widow, Philomena, arrives in Chicago for a visit to drum up a little cash. While Cindy helps ailing Acie in his store, absorbing all she can of jazz history, she also begins a separate romance with Down Beat music critic and radio personality Harnett Mtukufu, who happens to be Acie’s slippery son, aka Bowtie. From alternating points of view, Wheeler thickens the plot with snippets of art history involving Cindy’s study of German painters, such as Emil Nolde and Max Beckmann. Her studies come in handy after Acie is beaten up by a mysterious pimp who shadows Bowtie’s dealing in art forgeries based on Acie’s mother’s work—and Cindy recognizes some stashed etchings in Acie’s bathroom as belonging to Beckmann himself. It all sounds a bit too neatly far-fetched, but Wheeler is more interested in catching the vernacular cadence of her riffy characters than in making a credible story, especially when old friend from the neighborhood, Harold Washington, himself makes an appearance, offering protection to Acie if he gets out to vote. Poet Wheeler has a terrific ear, and her “Selected Playlist” of historic jazz recordings extends to the three pages in the back.
A lively intersection of art and music evokes a lost age of a great city.