A young man runs away to the South to learn the blues in this novel by Baldwin (The Fourth Domain, 2015, etc.).
Douglas Spencer III, a college student from a wealthy Chicago family in the 1950s, is failing in his medical studies and in his love life, so he decides to leave everything behind and pursue his true passion: blues guitar. In order to really understand “Delta blues,” he heads south to find the famous guitarist Mississippi John Hurt, but soon finds himself in over his head. It turns out that it isn’t easy for a young, naive white man to navigate the heavily segregated world of the Delta and its blues culture, and Hurt isn’t the easiest man to get close to. But to Doug, awkward relationships, fights, and prison time are a small price to pay to learn what makes his beloved blues tick. With the help of a disabled soprano singer and several badly behaved fellow musicians, he gradually finds his voice and a home of his own in the South—and even his love life improves along the way. The author’s own love for one of the most quintessentially American musical styles bleeds through nearly every line of this novel, starting with the introduction: “The Delta blues taste like sweat and cheap whiskey; smell like jail; sound best in a concrete block club with no windows, set back along the river where there’s no law after dark.” The narrative vividly illustrates every setting implied by that sentence. But against such a rich backdrop, the characters often seem flat. Doug’s characterization, for example, never really moves beyond that of a shallow, inexperienced college kid, even as the blues supposedly deepens his understanding of life. His tough, resilient love interest, Addie, breathes some life into the story, but she isn’t given enough to do. The overall lack of compelling characters may be intentional, though—after all, the real hero of this story is the Delta blues itself.
A jazzy glimpse into history that will pluck at the heartstrings of musicians but may leave other readers feeling a bit blue.