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The Consolations of Coltrane

Having an interest – in two senses ‑ in books and book publishing but having to work the rather odd pattern of afternoons/evenings rather than the normal mornings/afternoons that everyone else works means that one very rarely gets to attend that quintessential book trade event the launch. However, as circumstances become slightly more relaxed for me as I move to an easier work regime, I managed to attend two in the past fortnight. And to enjoy myself at both.

The first, in Hodges Figgis, was of the new book (also first book) by my work colleague Chris Dooley. It is reviewed in this issue of the Dublin Review of Books by Frank Callanan, who writes:

It is not journalistic (a favourite term of professional disparagement among historians) but it is informed by journalistic technique. It is written in the present tense as forward narrative with contextual flashbacks. It is impressively dispassionate. Redmond’s final rise and fall is by no means an easy story to tell, and Dooley has given shrewd consideration to how it is to be done.

I first met Chris Dooley, who is now foreign editor of The Irish Times, when he was a young journalist (at one stage agriculture correspondent) and active trade unionist in the Irish Press, which sadly disappeared twenty years ago ‑ and not, it is probably still necessary to add, because of the actions of its staff or their trade unions. Chris was joined by many old colleagues at the launch, including former Irish Press news editor Ray Burke, now chief news editor in RTÉ and the author of Press Delete (2005), the definitive account of the demise of the newspaper group. And the book was formally launched by John Horgan, former senator, TD and MEP, doyen of journalism education in Ireland, historian, anthologist and political biographer and recently retired press ombudsman.

The second launch, in Books Upstairs on D’Olier Street, was of the novel A Lonely Note by Kevin Stevens, whom regular readers of the Dublin Review of Books will know is a frequent contributor on literary – and occasionally musical ‑ subjects, specialising in the great tradition of North American fiction writing (Bellow, Salinger, Roth, Updike, Munro, [Lorrie] Moore, Richard Ford, Kent Haruf, who died late last year, and James Salter, who died in June of this year.



As well as being one of the best critical writers you will come across, Kevin has long been himself a writer of fiction. Before A Lonely Note he had written three novels, Song for Katya, a love story set in the Soviet Union during the Brezhnev era, The Rizzoli Contract, a political thriller set in 1980s Boston, and Reach the Shining River, a story of political corruption, race and class in 1930s Kansas City. He has also published two books for younger readers, This Ain’t No Video Game, Kid, a novel for young adults set in Seattle and The Powers, which was designated a Dublin Citywide Read by the Unesco City of Literature programme. His nonfiction includes The Cops Are Robbers, an account of New England’s largest bank burglary, which was made into an NBC Movie of the Week, and The Bird Era, a history of the Boston Celtics basketball team from 1978 to 1988. He has also written reviews and criticism for The Irish Times.

Musing, on his blog, on the kind of research he had to carry out for Reach the Shining River, Kevin wrote:

Write about what you know, the old chestnut advises. But how much sense does that make? Writers write. They are usually not out in the world solving crimes or running for Congress or manning spaceships. Yet readers want slices of life, so what does a writer depend on? Observation and research. And if you are writing a historical or genre novel, it’s mostly the latter, because the past is past and the only way to bring it back is through imagination. And the imagination needs raw material.
So I did the research. Online, in the libraries, history books, other novels. And then I let it sink in. Because it can’t come across as research – not in a novel. Whether or not I’ve been successful in re-creating the lost world of machine politics, racism, Negro baseball and Southwest jazz that characterized Depression-era Kansas City my readers will have to judge ...

A Lonely Note is about jazz too, and about the situation of immigrants from what is considered a “suspect culture” – in this case Iraqis – in small-town America, and so would have required more, and different, research. It’s also about the confusions of adolescence, the oppressive weight of authoritarian parenting, prejudice and bullying, and possibly the redemptive powers of music, including jazz and Iraqi choubi music, love and friendship. The novel’s original working title, publisher Siobhan Parkinson of Little Island told us at the launch, was A Love Supreme, which is a famous track by the jazz saxophonist John Coltrane. But of course A Love Supreme sounds rather like the title of a Silhouette Romance and there was never going to be any way out of people making that instant (and wrong) judgment, so A Lonely Note it became.

In the third chapter of the novel, the young Tariq, a clarinettist, is at home and listening casually to a radio station which sometimes plays jazz. Tariq has been practising the glissando that opens Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

But this music was unlike any jazz he’d ever heard. The sax was crashing through rapid arpeggios, cascades of notes that ripped and looped into tangled clumps that were anguished and intense. Yet the notes were controlled. They were meant. Like the cry of a wild animal, but articulate and emotional and technically incredible. How was he doing it? How was the player getting those sounds?
He turned it up even louder. In spite of its violence, the music was soothing. It was as if the song was playing his own fears. He stood motionless among the fancy pillows and antique rugs of the living room, listening the tune through to its drawn-out ending, hearing in its wrenching solo all the twisted feelings that had knotted him up since the day before. But feeling less anxious, too. As if the player were saying with his instrument: Yes, I know, I do. I know what it’s like.

Tariq has been listening to – without knowing what he is listening to it – Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. Not the least of the pleasures of the launch in Books Upstairs was the accompanying music by Mike Stevens on guitar and Kelan Walsh on clarinet and tenor sax, who played Duke Ellington’s In a Sentimental Mood and “Acknowledgement”, the first movement of A Love Supreme. A Lonely Note is published by Little Island at €12.99.

5/10/2015