By Tananarive Due
Atria. 484 pp. $25
About halfway through Tananarive Due's new novel, Joplin's Ghost , there is a sly reference to Toni Morrison's Beloved . The latter novel, of course, famously featured the ghost of a baby born to a slave mother , who was symbolic of the violent, genocidal history of African American slaves. Due's novel also has a ghost, but he is not an anonymous figure: He's the ghost of Scott Joplin, the King of Ragtime, who died alone and unremembered in a mental institution in 1917. But like the ghost baby in Beloved , Joplin's ghost is also a representative figure; he speaks for countless black musicians who were cheated out of the acclaim and fortune they deserved by the pervasive and systemic racism of their time.
In Due's telling, decades after Joplin's death, his ghost has found a soulmate across time and space in the form of Phoenix Smalls, a young, talented, ambitious black singer. After Phoenix's first two R&B albums fail to hit the big time, she signs up with a major record company, run by the enigmatic Ronn Jenkins, a drug pusher turned movie mogul. Phoenix knows she is standing on the cusp of fame. She also knows that she has sold her soul to get there -- that despite the relentless wheels of her publicity machine, she is really an artist, not an entertainer.
So here they are -- the angry, desperate ghost of a man who died without having his greatest compositions heard by the public and a lost, confused young woman who stopped listening to her inner voice. The novel sizzles once they meet.
Due has undertaken a particularly hard task. On the one hand, she has created a dead-on, realistic depiction of the L.A. music scene. The instant celebrity, the trappings of sudden wealth, the gangster ethos, the gang warfare, the projects-to-palaces stories are all told with a sharpness and attention to detail that reveal Due for the journalist she was. On the other hand, Due deals with the supernatural, with psychics and ghosts and out-of-body experiences that in the hand of a lesser writer might have left readers rolling their eyes. She pulls it off. Due's writing is spare but incredibly visual. She keeps her flights of fancy grounded to her story. Her matter-of-fact approach to the supernatural makes it easy for us to suspend disbelief.
The novel documents Joplin's decline in the last several years of his life and Phoenix's ascent as she climbs the ladder of stardom -- parallel stories about two troubled musicians whose gifts are prodigious and whose burdens are heavy. But here the similarities end. Joplin is an uncompromising genius, acutely aware of how a racist society has pigeon-holed him as a ragtime composer when he longs to write the definitive African American opera. Phoenix, meanwhile, lives in a time when blacks own musical empires, but she knows that she has sacrificed her values at the altar of success. The ghost and the young singer both have something to offer each other.
Despite this blending of a historical character with a fictional one, Due manages to make both of them come alive. Readers unfamiliar with Joplin may find themselves wondering which parts of this story are historical facts and which are born from Due's fertile imagination, but as improbable as some aspects of Joplin's life seem, much of what the novel describes is true. Indeed, what makes Joplin's Ghost more than just a ghost story is Due's sense of musical and cultural history. In one of the novel's most moving passages, Phoenix consoles Joplin with a recitation of other giants who followed in his footsteps -- people like Miles Davis and Duke Ellington and Marvin Gaye and Ella Fitzgerald. Due names much of the canon of black musical greats, and it's as if she is reciting the history of this country.
Even while she brings to life Scott Joplin the man, Due makes us appreciate Scott Joplin the icon, the symbol. This understanding gives Joplin's Ghost its haunting power. ·
Thrity Umrigar is the author of the novel, "Bombay Time." Her new novel, "The Space Between Us," will be published in January.