There are novels of the jazz age and novels that are somehow deemed jazzy. But few, if any, really get jazz. The Larry Strauss novel Now’s The Time does.
It’s the story of a struggling (aren’t they all?) jazz trumpet player named Didi Heron whose search for meaning has her tracking down the historic final recording of her long-dead father, the famed jazz pianist Billy Heron. The year is 1976 – a year that even the book finds little of any value happening in jazz – and the tape Didi searches for was made some twenty years before, when jazz players poured their soul into their art and made music that apparently mattered, or has gained significance the way many old things do. That may or may not be the case with the long-lost tape of Billy Heron’s final performance, recorded the night before he and another band member died in a tragic car accident.
Now’s The Time is a literary chronicle of Didi’s musical journey. She ends up befriending Red Young, the drummer on that historic yet fateful date two decades before and traveling to various points across the country in a search for the missing tape. It’s hard to say what she’s looking for. And it’s even more difficult to say what she finds. Maybe she knows and doesn’t know how to express it. Or maybe she knows and just doesn’t care what anybody else thinks about it. Maybe author Strauss knows too and thinks we should figure it out. It’s like jazz. It’s up to us. Either you get it or you don’t.
Strauss beautifully weaves reality (naming real jazz icons and historical fact) with fictional characters and a sort of twilight jazz mythology. He does it with a near poetic rhythmic reality that marries real-sounding street talk - that has a sort of truth that hardly ever dips into parody, given its mid-seventies setting - with artistically valid cadences and never stoops to Beat generation clichés, cheap coffee-house poetry or Blaxploitation jokiness.
Now’s The Time reads like a missing-persons mystery that, if it works, finds the seeker discovering themselves more than what they’re seeking. But Strauss really doesn’t provide that sort of resolution. Didi Heron is rigidly unknowable and even partly unlikable from the very start to the very end. She won’t let anyone in – including the reader. It’s almost as if the journey Strauss has taken her on permits her to be even more misanthropic and maladjusted than she already is, especially guided by the misanthropic and maladjusted characters she meets along the way.
From this white male’s perspective in 2010, Strauss does a pretty decent job bringing this young black woman to life in 1976. She seems too introverted to be part of any movement (feminism, racial politics, religion, etc.) and too embittered to care much about what’s happening around her (inflation, politics, the death of jazz, disco!). Naturally, that makes the author’s job a little easier. But he gives his self-contained character a fascinating inner life that has as much to do with emotional survival as anyone of us could possibly claim and most of us can truly appreciate.
The novel gets much of the period detail absolutely right, namely the shift in popular taste away from jazz (who in 1976 really cared about historic jazz performances from the 1950s?) and the corporate take-over of the art that was starting to happen at least a few years earlier. The only mistake I caught was the supposed misnaming of Tamla Records in one instance. Plus, Spring 1976 seems a little early to be hanging a Bootsy Collins promotional poster in a record store.
Curiously, Strauss continually questions the quality of the artistry of each and every one of his characters. Didi is a trumpet player who believes in jazz, but has to teach during the day to put what little food there is on her table for one. She’s not even sure her playing is worth anything. Her boyfriend, Derrick, who she never seems to even like, is a pianist who is good enough but (to her disgust) would rather play electric funk and gets his money doing session work. Even the musicians on the historic lost tape of the fifties could not have gotten much work, for a variety of reasons, in jazz after that fateful night.
Most tellingly of all, the only one who thinks Billy Heron’s piano playing has any merit is the daughter who deeply misses her long-dead father’s love. Even she questions whether she is filling in the spaces of his talent with the longing of a broken heart.
The book’s dénouement is most surprising of all. It’s not necessarily satisfying. But cases of imposture often are. It seemed like a little murder or mayhem should be behind it all. But author Strauss tries to keep it real and the more the book lingers – and it lingers nicely, like a riff that gives you goose bumps though you really don’t know why – the more it resonates with a pure truth that pleases when reconsidered.
Art is commerce. And commerce can be art. Well done.
Plus: Check out the Larry Strauss blog, Carvin' the Vaults.