How '23 Is Greater Than '24'
Monday, January 22, 2007
THE DYING CRAPSHOOTER'S BLUES
By David Fulmer
Harcourt. 305 pp. $23
Istruck a blow for freedom recently. It was a Sunday, just after 8. I'd made it through the Patriots-Chargers game, and now it was time for the long-awaited sixth season of "24." Only you, Jack Bauer, can save us from the fiendish terrorists and imbecilic statesmen who imperil our beloved h omeland! But wait! A spark was stirring inside me. I knew that in recent years"24" had been steadily climbing the list of my 20 worst habits. In a burst of manly virtue, I switched off the TV set and picked up David Fulmer's "The Dying Crapshooter's Blues." I did it, and I'm glad.
There is nothing urgent or timely about the novel, and that, really, is the point. Set in Atlanta in 1923, it's populated by gamblers, pimps, whores, blues singers, thuggish cops and the occasional plutocrat. It carries us back to a simpler era, when men shot and stabbed one another but no one was blowing up cities or bringing down buildings. Fulmer set three previous novels in early 20th-century New Orleans, and he is skilled at re-creating the sights and sounds of the South of a hundred years ago. His mostly lowlife characters are diverting without being alarming. Call it escapism, call it nostalgia, but Atlanta in 1923 was a lot more fun than watching Kiefer Sutherland huff and puff through his one-man war on terrorism.
This is a raffish and deceptively simple novel; a lot is going on. At the outset, on a Saturday night before Christmas, two crimes occur at opposite poles of society. On Euclid Avenue, swells in tuxedos and fancy gowns are attending a charity ball at the Payne family's Greek-revival mansion. But -- hark! -- skulduggery is afoot. One of the maids unlocks a basement door and leaves it open, and before the evening is over Mrs. Payne's jewelry is missing. Meanwhile, less than two miles away, near the gambling houses and gin mills of Central Avenue, a drunken white cop named J.R. Logue shoots a small-time Negro gambler and pimp called Little Jesse Williams. But Little Jesse doesn't die right away -- he's the dying crapshooter of the title.
No one in authority worries about Little Jesse's fate, but the jewel robbery outrages City Hall. The police force turns to the brutal Capt. Grayton Jackson to make an arrest. Into this mess walks our hero, Joe Rose, a half-Indian gambler and thief. He's just arrived back in town, and he didn't steal Mrs. Payne's jewels, but he might be suitable for framing.
Complicating his plight, he's a friend of Little Jesse and is determined to find out who shot him and why. Joe Rose is a charming rounder who moves easily between the black and white characters in the novel, particularly the women. One of his paramours is none other than Capt. Jackson's randy wife. Back in her home town, it was said that "she had initiated more boys than the Scouts," and she delights in cuckolding her cruel and stupid husband. Joe Rose also defies local law and good sense to lie with Pearl Spencer, a high-spirited young black woman who was one of the maids at the Payne house and may have been in on the robbery.
The most intriguing character in the novel comes from real life: Blind Willie McTell (1901-1959), the great blues singer, whose work endures today in covers by the Allman Brothers and other artists. We first see McTell one Sunday morning when he's walking "along Old Wheat Street with his Braille bible in his coat pocket and his guitar hoisted on his back. He never traveled anywhere without the twelve-string Stella and the Good Book." Willie is a friend of both Joe Rose and Little Jesse Williams, and as the latter lies dying he writes a ballad about his life and death. In another twist, two talent scouts from a New York record company come to town to record local talent -- mostly white country musicians -- and Willie is barred from the all-white hotel where they're staying. This mostly good-natured novel ignores neither the racism nor the police corruption of the era.
Fulmer includes some history of Atlanta, which was burned to the ground in the Civil War but by 1923 has been reborn as the grandest city in the South, its population approaching a quarter of a million. The novel is also distinguished by a level of detail that makes a vanished world live again: "Then there was the smell, a fetid combination of engine exhaust, horse manure, rusting pipes, wood smoke, and damp rot, all with contributions from the nearby Atlanta Livestock Center, famed for its stench." The ideal reader for this easygoing novel may be someone who cares about the Atlanta or the South of yesteryear, but it will help if he or she isn't expecting too pretty a picture.