In Of Song and Water (Archipelago Books, 2007 [Paperback 2009]), Joseph Coulson compresses the multigenerational sweep of a family epic into the humble confines of a small novel about middle-aged regret. Coleman Moore, the book’s protagonist, lives almost entirely in the past, constantly reliving his halcyon days as an up-and-coming jazz guitarist in Chicago. He is also haunted by the tragic legacy of his father and grandfather, whose hard lives made it possible for him to pursue his dreams. Throughout the novel, Coulson’s narration slips fluidly between the perspectives of the three generations of Moore men, jumbling timelines and storylines without much fuss over which parts belong to the present and which to the past. “Time is solid or liquid,” Coulson writes in Coleman’s weary voice. “It drags or runs like water. Either way, it’s difficult to keep straight.”
Even so, Coulson leaves little doubt as to where in time Coleman’s heart lies. Although he once enjoyed moderate national success as a jazz guitarist, as the novel opens, he is eking out a living as a truck driver in a small town on Lake Michigan, his career having entered a state of deep decline. Estranged from his wife, Maureen, and unable to play the guitar without suffering pain in his hands, Coleman takes little joy in life, save in his sometimes-strained relationship with his teenage daughter and in his bittersweet memories of long-gone better days.
The crux of the novel comes in Coleman’s realization that he can blame only himself for the ruinous state of his life. He traces his decline back to one fateful decision. As a young man in Chicago, he had been deeply in love with his girlfriend, Jen, and had established an intimate musical partnership with a bass player named Brian James. But when the chance came to join a national touring act as a sideman, Coleman left Jen and Brian behind without hesitation.
Coleman’s hunger for success and recognition emerges from his doubts about his ability to measure up as a musician and as a son. Growing up, Coleman never felt comfortable in the tough, masculine world of his father and grandfather—a sailor and a bootlegger who always had difficulty understanding his dreamy and artistic disposition. He also feels like a pretender in the world of jazz. “He had traveled with a burgeoning self-doubt,” Coulson writes, “a feeling that any value or substance he had, any claim to authenticity, came from playing jazz with a black man.” But as Coleman’s star rises in the jazz world, no amount of respect from his peers seems enough to make him feel comfortable in his own skin.
Coulson’s willingness to tackle the thorny and complicated issue of race in contemporary jazz demonstrates an admirable honesty and seriousness of purpose, as well as a dedication to portraying the setting of his novel with a full and rich realism. He shows an acute understanding of the way that some artists use their work not to reach out and communicate with others, but instead as a means to shut the rest of the world out. When describing one of Coleman’s performances, Coulson expresses this strange kind of public interiority perfectly: “As the chords and melodies build…he’s playing himself into a corner, a dark recess that for all his intimidating skill feels lonely and confined.”
At the same time, however, Coulson does little to bring the sound or feel of Coleman’s music to life on the page, leaning heavily on the highly abstract (“the sound flows from him like water”). Coulson displays little depth of knowledge about either the guitar or about the process of jazz improvisation, nor does he infuse his narrative with much passion for the music itself. As a result, the book’s musical performance scenes read as lifeless and inert—a significant problem in a novel about a musician, because it means Coulson is never able to give the reader a full understanding of the role music plays in his protagonist’s life.
Many of the passages involving the Moore men sailing the Great Lakes suffer from a similar lack of depth, including lots of surface detail about sailing without convincingly conveying the experience of being out on the water. Coulson also sprinkles the book with allusions to Moby Dick—there’s a ship named the Pequod, as well as numerous references to white whales. It’s a disastrous move, heavy-handed and obvious, and it weighs Coulson’s book down with its laboriousness and pretension.
For the most part, however, Coulson writes with efficiency and grace, moving swiftly from image to image and emotion to emotion, rarely pausing long to linger or reflect before moving on. Like a bare-bones trio tackling a hoary old standard, Coulson strips his work down to essentials and approaches it with rigorous competence. The end result is spare and thoughtful, but displays none of the passionate engagement or innovative fire of fiction (or jazz) at its best. From Of Song and Water’s opening pages, it’s clear that we’ve heard this song many times before—it’s that one about the middle-aged guy who’s wrecked his life and now struggles to achieve some kind of redemption. Coulson plays it with a little bit of style, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s the same old tune.
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