Adam Mansbach 2008

Adam Mansbach  books  events  bio  music  interviews  other writing 


Twelve Bar Blues by Patrick Neate
Grove Press/401 pages

Patrick Neate’s “Twelve Bar Blues” is an ambitious, self-conscious exercise in polyphony. Juggling plot lines like melodic ones, bridging continents and centuries, this is ultimately a simple, resonant story made complex in the telling.

The central figures are Lick Holden, an early-twentieth-century New Orleans cornet player, and Sylvie, the light-enough-to-pass stepsister for whom he pines and searches. A third of the way into the book, and eighty years into the future, we also meet Sylvia Di Napoli, a British ex-prostitute perplexed by her blackness and looking for her roots. Meanwhile, in modern-day Zambawi, Africa, a witchdoctor named Musa, plagued by dreams of an ancient betrayal, sets out to right a wrong that has ramified for centuries.

Despite all the disparate times and places, the story comes together rather easily -- quickly in the mind of the reader, and more slowly on the page. British music journalist Neate is coy and labored in his efforts to arrange the plot so as to maximize its limited suspense. He goes as far as to simply gloss over revelatory conversations between characters (“She tried to tell him her story... An hour and a half later, at the tail end of the tale, Jim suddenly stood up.”) and then doubling back to disclose their content later, when the information will have greater dramatic impact.

The pleasures of “Twelve Bar Blues” come not from the plot, but from Neate’s gifts as a writer of scenes. He is in no rush to speed the action forward, and thus we are treated to lush tours of a long-vanished New Orleans, and allowed to watch life unfold, in all its comedy and pathos, in a small African village presided over by a beleaguered hereditary chief. Sometimes the transitions between worlds can be jarring, but never for more than a moment; Neate draws the reader into each chapter quickly enough to prevent cultural jet-lag from setting in. “Twelve Bar Blues” is a page-turner not because Neate inspires any burning desire to learn what happens next, but because his world and his characters are worth knowing.

When it comes to New Orleans, Neate has clearly done his research -- perhaps too much of it. He displays an odd tendency to cover for his fictionalizations by introducing into the novel the figures from whose lives he has taken his inspiration. There are two great sources for information on Storyville cornetists; one is Michael Ondaatje’s “Coming Through Slaughter,” a part-fictional, part-investigative account of the life of the legendary (and unrecorded) Buddy Bolden, and the other is the autobiographical canon of Louis Armstrong himself.

Neate is a student of both. Lick Holden’s early years are nearly identical to Armstrong’s: both enter group homes at the age of eight, where they learn to play cornet and join marching bands, both work for kind Jewish families, both enter into brief marriages to prostitutes. At one point, Neate even rewrites the story of a knife-fight between two prostitutes recounted by Armstrong in his memoirs. And then, as if to correct for all his borrowing, into “Twelve Bar Blues” saunters the young Armstrong himself. He and Lick spend a month playing together, although they never realize how amazingly similar their life stories are.

Neate’s tone, in the New Orleans sections, strays inappropriately toward Ondaajte’s journalistic style. He quotes sources and speculates on “unknown” aspects and “lost” facts of Lick’s life. We are told, for instance, that in an as-yet unpublished memoir Armstrong credits Lick with teaching him the “meanin’ of the word ‘hot.’” Elsewhere, Neate goes out of his way to suggest that white trumpet player Bix Biederbeck, too, was influenced by Lick.

Many of Neate’s breaks in tone are in service to the contention that Lick is jazz’s greatest forgotten horn player, but the character’s prowess comes across better when Neate stops trying to insinuate him into jazz history and simply puts Lick on a honky-tonk stage and lets him blow. Lick’s place in history is unimportant; his longing for Sylvie and his naiveté in the face of the pernicious racism that pervades New Orleans are.

The further Neate roams from the here and now, the better “Twelve Bar Blues” fares. Lick and his large supporting cast are fully realized characters, as are Neate’s African contingent. The book’s weakest sections are those which revolve around Sylvia, whose journey of self-discovery leads her from London to New York to Chicago to New Orleans. She and her milquetoast traveling companion, Jim -- whom she meets on the airplane to New York and who quickly decides to come along for the entire ride -- are comparatively flat, and Neate loses his ear for dialogue once the action moves to present-day America. The streetwise, Lexus-driving black preacher who points the questers toward New Orleans is every inch a cliche, and the dialogue spoken by the two hoods who try to mug Jim and Sylvia rings utterly false.

Such minor slips, unfortunately, cast long shadows. Neate’s New Orleans period-dialogue is highly stylized, full of downhome color and non-standard constructions. It is risky, and it pays off -- his characters’ speech is evocative and authentic, and stops just short of being over the top. But the trust Neate has carefully earned is strained by any instant of dialogical awkwardness; the last thing “Twelve Bar Blues” needs is for the reader to doubt the legitimacy of a well-written past because of missteps in the present. A stereotypical moment goes a long way toward compromising a book, especially given the fact that Neate is a white writer inhabiting black characters.

Nonetheless, “Twelve Bar Blues” swings. Neate writes with enough humanity to overcome his weaknesses, and his lucid prose, diligent research and considerable energy are enough to make this a brisk, compelling read.

Adam Mansbach is the author of the novel Shackling Water.


Adam Mansbach  books  events  bio  music  interviews  other writing