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The Best of Jackson Payne
by Jack Fuller
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0375405356, Hardcover)Although Jack Fuller's seventh book sounds more like a CD than a novel, it's an apt bit of obscurantism. The story skitters and swings as much musically as narratively, and the title's fictional saxophonist leads the itinerant, dissipated life of a bebop genius. With its medley of reflections, interviews, and music-theory discourses, The Best of Jackson Payne unfolds a bit like a work of jazz itself, with distinctively stateside riffs on race and art.
Payne resides enigmatically at the center of the novel's swirl of recollections. He also occupies to near-exclusivity the consciousness of the biographer who is methodically sifting through the detritus of Payne's life. "At times it seemed to Quinlan like trying to reconstruct a building from its wreckage." Still, "by listening to Payne play, Quinlan felt sure he was able to divine things about the man that simply could not otherwise be known." What he discovers is a musician who, though gifted from youth, pursues every vice available to the club player. Through prison stays, heroin binges, and turbulent romances, Payne retains not only his genius but also an uncompromising, often isolating, willfulness. Only a dalliance with Islam and an improbable comeback as a visionary experimentalist temporarily stay his decline. Ultimately, Payne can't elude his indiscretions, and--messiah-like--discovers the world can't accept his many sacrifices.
Quinlan's story often feels somewhat less than tangential when set beside Payne's, but Fuller maintains a neat parallelism between the two, both men heedlessly sublimating their disappointments in pursuit of their obsessions. And while Payne struggles to negotiate a society that regards him as only provisionally admissible, Quinlan--the white journalist--finds himself navigating often similarly unfriendly terrain as he tracks down his subject's cohorts, enemies, and lovers. Payne was "hooked on discovery, on release from the quotidian, on flying free," we learn, but Fuller, admirably, keeps his hero from lapsing into cliché. There's a smoky intrigue to this book, a pleasure in discovering the psychic sources of one man's art. --Ben Guterson
(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:23:12 -0400)
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