MORE THAN YOU KNOW
By Rosalyn Story
Agate. 382 pp. $24.95
Jazz novels, not unlike jazz films, have common tropes that offer in their familiarity a certain comfort. You know there will be: a tortured and enormously talented horn player who must choose between his music and his woman, the insides of smoky jazz clubs nestled amid a big, harsh city, and -- never far away -- a temptress/singer with a sultry voice and loose ways. The question is seldom what happens to this horn player, but rather how will the writer riff on a familiar standard?
More Than You Know delivers on this formula, but with a twist -- in fact with many twists. Rosalyn Story's debut novel is a mystery at heart -- a page-turner enhanced by lyrical language and clever plot turns. Story, a violinist with the Fort Worth Symphony, knows how to play to a crowd, and she drives the narrative like a good straight-ahead quartet -- taking a pop standard and playing it with panache while adding fresh changes and tempos that give the well-worn tune a whole new sound.
When the novel opens, it's 1955 in Arkansas, and a little boy is carrying a baby in his arms, running through a thunderstorm to deliver the infant at the door of an unsuspecting woman. This is the first of many mysteries of the book, and as the story slowly unfurls, we read on to learn the identity of that boy, the baby and the baby's mother. Along the way, the story fast-forwards to the late 1990s, and we are introduced to L.J. Tillman, a saxophone player who has found himself homeless on the streets of New York after leaving his grieving wife, Olivia, back in Kansas City. Olivia thinks L.J. died in a crash (his car was found at the bottom of a river), and he can't return home yet because he is guilt-ridden over a secret he has long kept. Adding to the cast is a group of four women and one man, the five "parents" of Olivia, who, it turns out, was the baby in the arms of that little boy.
At the center of all these parents is Big Mama, the no-nonsense character who anchors the story with her solid mothering and large spirit. But Big Mama has her own secret. In fact, this is a book of secrets, of the past impinging upon the present, and of the harm that comes from holding those secrets for too long deep in one's belly.
This is also the story of a quest to find one's true voice. Olivia can sing, but she won't, because she, too, is haunted by a secret, an inner shame that comes from learning just who her mother was. And so she has remained musically mute for her entire adult life -- that is, until her life starts to unravel and, with nothing to lose, she opens her mouth and lets the truth come out.
Story does a fine job of translating musicality to the page. In one passage, L.J. plays a tune "straightforward at first, then carves it up into half-phrases, with improvised runs in-between. Caresses it into a husky whisper. Turns it upside down, stretches it out, floats from one octave to another. Quotes 'Stella By Starlight' in the middle, just for fun."
Even though the reader knows early on where the story will end, getting there is a satisfying journey because the writer keeps the obvious at bay at every turn, instilling just enough doubt in the reader's mind, and dropping revelations at key points, to keep the novel engaging. One way in which Story plays with expectations is that her horn player, L.J., doesn't do drugs, is not a womanizer and has been faithfully married to his wife for 25 years until the day he walked away from that car accident and out of her life. He's a refreshing portrayal of a jazz musician, as he has more than talent: He has a moral compass that doesn't fail him when he needs it most. Indeed, we are made to care deeply for L.J., and it becomes evident early on that no real harm can come to him; the writer loves him too much. Although the author may have enhanced him with a few more complexities, it's a refreshing pleasure to spend time with such a humane if troubled African-American male character.
Details surge with authenticity. For example, when the narrator describes life on the street for L.J., she does so with pitch-perfect resonance: "Days pass, and survival is the usual seat-of-the-pants affair of beans and crackers in soup kitchens, of Spam and cheese and week-old bread from church pantries, of waking to the scuttle of pigeons or the ruckus of drunken fights, of dodging skidding cars and braking buses, of aimless, endless walking, and the long stares of cops."
As with most debut novels, the writing could be tighter. The story is sometimes off-key, especially when the inner dialogues of the characters repeat what the narrator has already told us, or vice versa. There is a too-neat symmetry to the plot, as well as a few conveniences that test credulity. But More Than You Know is an engaging addition to the jazz-novel canon and a strong beginning for its writer, as she follows the same advice L.J. follows when playing to a rapt audience: "Rev them up and leave them wanting more." *
Bridgett M. Davis is the author of "Shifting Through Neutral" and director of the film "Naked Acts."