Book World: Review of Stona Fitch's 'Give + Take' about a jazz pianist thief

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By Michael Lindgren
Wednesday, August 4, 2010


By Stona Fitch

Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's. 244 pp. $23.99

Every decade seems to produce at least one novel perfectly in tune with its collective vibe: Think "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues" for the '70s, "Less Than Zero" for the '80s and maybe "The Secret History" for the 1990s. Stona Fitch's charming but wildly uneven "Give + Take" wants to be that book for our hyperventilating new decade, but in the end flounders on its own contradictions.

Fitch's protagonist is Ross Clifton, an itinerant jazz pianist with a secret second life: He steals from the rich, lonely women he meets at nightclub gigs and donates the proceeds anonymously to impoverished strangers. (Ross's guerrilla altruism gives the novel a nice populist twist, which, incidentally, Fitch puts into practice with his own publishing house, the Concord Free Press, which gives all its books away.) Ross is forced to adjust his solitary ways, however, when he is joined on the road by his slacker nephew, Cray, and a seductive torch singer named Marianne, both of whom bring their own secrets to the eccentric menagerie. Cray, in particular, is vividly sketched, an amoral prankster whose manic banality makes him an excellent foil for the often dour and fussy Ross. Marianne, on the other hand, is a cardboard cutout straight from the Bacall/Chandler femme fatale handbook, right down to the slinky dresses and throaty voice.

Stylistically, "Give + Take" is an odd mix of the clumsy and the poetic. Fitch knows his jazz, and he can be graceful when writing about music -- a surprisingly rare ability -- but some of the caper sequences are so awkwardly handled that they don't really make sense, even on a second reading. In general, the narrative is stranded in a tonal no-man's-land: not funny enough to be satire, but not ruthless enough to be noir. As the cities pass by and the miles accumulate, Ross, Cray and Marianne bounce off each other with predictable and diminishing returns, until the novel bumps along to its finale.

On the whole, "Give + Take" stands as an admirable attempt at an epoch-defining parable that doesn't quite jell. In trying for a sardonic commentary on the ethical implications of social inequity, the best Ross can offer is some hazy barroom philosophy: "I'm good at turning stupid expensive things into cash really quickly. It's a gift. And I figure I should use it. Wealth's getting too concentrated." Both Cray and Marianne offer tentative rebuttals to this shopworn romanticism, but Fitch doesn't have the patience or the cunning to follow the implications of their arguments anywhere genuinely challenging. Come to think of it, with its ambivalence and murky morality, its uncertain mix of the tentative and the sincere, "Give + Take" may be perfectly representative of our time, after all.

Lindgren is a writer and musician who lives in Manhattan.

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