Blue Bossa

Peter Kurth reviews Bart Schneider's novel "Blue Bossa".

By Peter Kurth

Published March 6, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Of all the arts, music is probably the most difficult to write about successfully -- to capture, that is, in anything resembling its original form. In "Blue Bossa," the story of a jazz trumpeter down on his luck and looking for a comeback both as an artist and man, novelist Bart Schneider takes the wisest course and doesn't attempt to imitate or simulate the sound of the horn. Rather, he mirrors it in a stylish, lyrical narrative, told in a series of free-floating vignettes only vaguely concerned with actual time, that make you feel that you've listened to a particularly rewarding set of notes, alternately gentle, mournful, erotic and ecstatic.

The scene is San Francisco and the year (when the actual year is made to matter) is 1974, at the time of Patricia Hearst's kidnapping by the Symbionese Liberation Army. Ronnie Reboulet, a former star musician and national heartthrob now living in a state of comfortable disenchantment with his wise and loving mistress, Betty, is confronted with the daughter he abandoned years before, when he broke free of family obligations and took a slide straight down the tubes into heroin addiction. Ronnie is a prodigy, a musical Wunderkind, and a white boy in the world of black men's music; his daughter, Rae, turns up at his door with a black child of her own, the offspring of one shiftless punk or another who's taken advantage of her wistful good nature as she endeavors to put together her own halting career as a lounge singer. "Blue Bossa" is the story of Ronnie and Rae's rises and falls, past and present, musical and otherwise, and of Ronnie's effort to take up the horn again in a world without dreams and without drugs.

"It was in Florida that he made the point of banishing music," Schneider observes. "He cast it out, isolated it like a disease from the rest of his one-foot-before-the-other life. He slipped it into an unlined case, the strongbox for all things gathered that would not of themselves dissolve. He tried to reenter the world with the peculiar posture of the tone-deaf. He felt confident that he could join the tribe of shambling gracelessness without incident." The measured calmness and sure control of Schneider's prose is the saving grace of his novel, turning a story that might have been salacious and ordinary -- "Raffish Wastrel Seeks Love and Redemption in the Love of Two Good Women" -- into something truly memorable, soft and fine. The casting of the story against the backdrop of the Patty Hearst saga, with its too deliberate commentary about fathers and daughters, is the only aspect of the novel that doesn't quite work. It seems forced and somehow irrelevant. But the characters are beautifully drawn, utterly believable and, in the end, as true to each other as their natures allow them to be.

Peter Kurth

Peter Kurth, a regular contributor to Salon Books, is the author of "Isadora: A Sensational Life." He lives in Burlington, Vt.

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