Monday, November 21, 2011

Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

Voice and character are two outstanding aspects of Esi Edugyan's award-winning novel, Half-Blood Blues, about musicians in a jazz band in Europe during the second World War. The tale is narrated by Sid Griffiths, who is 82 years old in 1992. His story often flips backward in time as he relates the events surrounding the disappearance of his youngest bandmate after being picked up by Nazi soldiers in Paris.

Sid played bass in the Hot-Time Swingers in Berlin in the 1930s. Ninteen-year-old Hieronymus Falk, a German with a Black father, played trombone. Chip Jones, Sid's boyhood friend from Baltimore, was the drummer. Here Sid describes a session they played with Louis Armstrong, who had heard about Falk's talent:

"Chip's kit was crisp, clean, and I could feel the lazy old tug of the bass line walk down into its basement and hang up its hat, and I begun to smile. Then the kid come in. He was brash, sharp, bright. And then, real late, Armstrong come in. I was shocked. Ain't no bold brass at all. He just trilled in a breezy, casual way, like he giving some dame a second glance in the street without breaking stride. It was just so calm, so effortlessly itself. Give me a damn chill."

Fifty-two years later, on the way to the airport, Sid's cab driver asks, "Where you off to?"

'"London," I said. "I'm going back to London. I live there." Better not to tell folks your business, I figure. Nor to let them know you're leaving your pad empty. A man's got to be careful these days.
 "London?" the cabbie said. "No kidding. I used to live in London. England's alright but the food'll kill you. Whereabouts you live over there?"
I frowned. I ain't got no mind for this damn small talk. Best to shut him up quick. "Not London England," I said. "London Ontario. In Canada."
The cabbie's eyes sort of glazed over. Canada kills any conversation quick, I learned long ago. It's a little trick of mine.'

Ha! I never got tired of Sid's cranky voice. I could tell he was suffering from an old pain -- a mix of sorrow and guilt and shame -- and I stayed glued to his telling right up to the last satisfying word.

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