originally published 1996
"Blues done saved as many lives as church songs."
I'm not exactly sure where I first heard about Dirty Bird Blues, but I think it was this year's inclusion in the long-established collection of Penguin Classics that sold me. According to Penguin's website, their classics collections
"represents a global bookshelf of the best works throughout history and across genres and disciplines,"
and are also meant to "guide you through a reader's odyssey." This latest addition to the series is by Clarence Major, about whom John Beckman has provided a brief biography as part of his introduction to Dirty Bird Blues; I also went to BlackPast for more info about this author. He's published nine novels, two short fiction volumes and sixteen poetry collections; he is also "an accomplished visual artist." About this book, Beckman quotes Major as saying that it is "another kind of experiment, this time with the language of the blues," to which Beckman adds that the novel is "powered by realism, and its experiments only enhance the effect." It's also a novel I read twice; the second time through only boosted my admiration of this story in which a young, conflicted musician must reckon not only with balancing his artistic life with family responsibilities, but also must navigate a racist society while learning how to deal with problems of his own making.
Chicago, Christmas 1949, and twenty-five year old Manfred (Man) Banks is trying to climb into a window which gets stuck and then "Suddenly this big boom." He's been shot, but thanks to the "good liquor coating him" he feels nothing. Shot a second time, he makes his way to the black hospital where he's listed as a "charity case" before his treatment, after which he is then questioned and harassed by two black cops. The man who shot him is a preacher with whom Man's wife Cleo and their baby daughter Karina has been living for a while after Cleo left him. Cleo's leaving was apparently by mutual agreement -- they "couldn't keep food in the cupboard, couldn't feed the baby, refrigerator empty. " All of this, Cleo reminds him later, was too hard on their baby; Eddie, the man she's with now, "is good to her, she gets everything she needs." She and Man still love each other; she wants him to "grow up" and to put her and the baby before his drinking; he wants to make it as a musician, not an easy task in Chicago, where as his fellow musician/friend/drinking/carousing partner Solly Thigpen notes, "it's hard to get anybody to pay any tention to you in a big town." Realizing that he can't pull another stunt like he did, understanding that "I got to walk straight fore I can fly," and knowing that he wants Cleo back, Man decides to take his sister up on her offer for him to come to Omaha where he can stay with her family until he gets on his feet.
A new start? Certainly it's a new city; Man plays his music and sings at a local neighborhood joint called The Palace where he leaves the crowd "begging for more" and gets offered a part-time gig; he lands a day job and in anticipation of Cleo joining him, finds an apartment for his family. He's still hitting the Old Crow (the "Dirty Bird" of the title) pretty regularly, yet as happy as he is to be with Cleo when she comes to town,
"already this new sense of responsibility he was feeling toward Cleo and Karina shook him. It felt like chains."
Then, when his best bud follows him to Omaha from Chicago, she warns him against
"all that stuff with Solly again, all that drinking and staying out all hours and stuff, falling in drunk,"
and reminds him that she'd come out there because he'd "agreed to act right." But Man enjoys hanging out with the very irresponsible Solly with whom he feels no need to "grow up." He finds himself in a sort of inner conflict between the two; one would think that some compromise seems to be in order but it doesn't seem to be in the cards on Man's part. On top of his other ongoing problems (especially the racial issues that he finds himself falling victim to) and his troubled past, this conflict will (quoting the back cover blurb) soon lead him into a "nightmarish descent into his own troubled depths."
The story's a good one, and yet the joy of reading is found less in the plot than in the "language of the blues" the author employs throughout. "Singing," we are told at the beginning, was Man's "way of talking out this furious, crazy thing in him that made him glide, leap, holler, and scream as if over treetops without even moving," and the blues, as he says, "done saved as many lives as church songs." His lyrics and his often-surrealistic dreams offer not only a look into Man's troubled psyche, but also, as the book description notes, "keep bringing him back to face himself." As Yusef Komunyakaa notes so eloquently in the foreward he's written for Dirty Bird Blues,
"Man isn't merely a bluesman, but he is an artist, always engaged, like a John Coltrane -- not satisfied with the mere fingering of the elemental strings of his existence but determined to see into the mystery of his being, as well as gaze up at the sky or seek out a woman's eyes."
What is also really interesting and noteworthy is how the author sets up both Man and Solly as near-mirror images of each other -- I won't say more but it works so very nicely as the book moves toward its ending.
I read Dirty Bird Blues as part of Black History month, a fine choice and it's a novel that has stuck with me since finishing it both in terms of content and especially because of the writing. Clearly Major is a gifted, out-of-the-box writer, and it didn't take long before I was completely immersed and entranced. I can definitely recommend it.