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American Blues

Fiction  |  Stories
220 pages
5” x 8” Perfect-bound trade paperback
Also available in eBook formats and hardcover
ISBN 978-1909374249
First Edition
Review Copy: Paperback
Holland House Books
Available HERE
Review by Laura Citino

In “Sonny’s Blues 1977,” the opening story in Evan Guilford-Blake’s collection, American Blues, a saxophonist at the end of his career finds himself running out of hope for a better tomorrow. His health is precarious, the gigs don’t come as steady as they used to, and he’s stuck in a past where he’s healthy, successful, and with the woman he always thought he’d grow old with:

His sleep is hard, like his waking. His belly awakens him repeatedly and he sits up chewing antacids one after another. The pain eases up for a while, and between the bouts, he falls asleep. Maryjane, still as the dead oak in his Mama’s back yard, sleeps peacefully besides him, but he dreams of Norma. Norma just got wore out, like he’s wearing out; only different is, she walked away while she still had somethin’ left to wear.
(p. 10)

What keeps Sonny moving forward is his music. As his body wears out and his age takes a toll, the music is what keeps him waking up day after day:

Even the pain picked itself up and floated away on a river of blues. Didn’t need no drugs to do that, just the reed and the saxophone’s worn keys.
(p. 3)

This is the position in which all the characters in this collection, which contains just five stories (The final, “The Easy Lovin’ Blues,” is practically a novella.), find themselves. The blues of the book’s title refers not just to the music that these characters love and stake their lives on, but blues as an emotion in and of itself. The blues is a sadness that transcends personal struggle, time, and privilege into something deeper, more commonly human. The fact that the first two stories have a blues in the possessive (“Sonny’s Blues 1977” and “Tio’s Blues 1957”) speaks to this idea that the blues are a tangible object with a life and breadth of their own, that flowing river that each of us take a swim in at some point in our lives.

When reading a collection so strongly centered around music, it’s difficult not to make comparisons to Stuart Dybek, whose collections, I Sailed with Magellan and The Coast of Chicago, both made music—in Dybek’s case, jazz—the connecting thread among characters spanning decades. Unlike Dybek, the music in Guilford-Blake’s stories doesn’t save you, doesn’t lift you up beyond your body to a place of timeless grace. Instead, these blues dig you down deeper into your pain, to help you pretend that you’re okay, that it’s all worth something in the end. These are not uplifting stories. In some spots, the sheer awfulness of the plot, as in “Tio’s Blues 1957,” where a young gangster-type carries a terrible secret about his relationship with his mentally disabled brother, can be too much. We don’t always get the kind of intense interiority from the characters that would justify it. However, the saving grace almost every time is the collection’s lovely prose, manifested through swirling, chewy descriptions of trumpets, saxophones, solos, and song. “Tio’s Blues,” in particular, carries the interior voice of the brother beautifully through his intense, and at times overwhelming, love of music:

Nearby, a bunch of boys and girls were having a picnic—he liked picnics—and playing a radio. Elvis. He didn’t like Elvis. Elvis was too loud, there were too many words he didn’t understand, and the music didn’t sound like the music he loved, the sultry blue he heard in the sounds of the great trumpeters, especially Clifford Brown, and in the sounds he could make himself, that he could watch float out off the bell of his horn and, like blue smoke, embrace him, choke him, then slowly rise, to dissipate in the air above.
(p. 41)

The middle story, “Nighthawks 1943,” makes it even harder to avoid the comparison to Dybek, who has a story of the same title in The Coast of Chicago that also uses Edward Hopper’s beyond-famous painting as an ekphrastic jumping-off point. As in Dybek, Guilford-Blake uses the figures from the painting as characters—the counter clerk in the white hat, the red-haired woman and her accompanying partner, the exhaustion replete in each face. This story is a standout for its skillful switching of point of view among the players, as well as the way it uses evocative dialogue and the long, loaded silences between to amp up the tension. The red-haired woman, Donna, is having an affair with the married Gil next to her after losing her old boyfriend in the war. Like Sonny of the first story, she is starting to sense her idealized future slipping beyond the horizon:

“Y’know what I get tired a, Gil?” she said quietly. “I get tired a not bein’ able to say nothing. I mean, I get up in the morning and I go to work and a lot of the girls, the ones who got somebody still over here, they’re talkin’ all the time, about their husbands ’r their boyfriends, how they did this, how they’re gonna do that.” Donna shook her head and laughed, a choked, throaty laugh. Gil lowered his forehead into his hands. “‘What’re you gonna go this weekend, Donna?’ I bet I been asked that a thousand times. I don’ know, I always say, I gotta see what happens.”
(p. 96)

Four of the five stories end on a dramatically violent note, and the fifth, “Animation,” ends in a manner so depressing, it doesn’t feel out of place. It’s difficult to say whether the violence feels gratuitous; in many cases, it makes sense psychologically. The slow building of pain and sadness through the pages could perhaps only be relieved through an act of great destruction. But avoiding that kind of explosion has always been the beauty of the blues. The genre has the ability to express an entire world of pain through a long, slow saxophone solo or the rhythmic humming of an untrained singer. A smashed guitar isn’t the usual ending to a blues show, after all, so finishing these stories with such intense climaxes doesn’t always feel satisfying. But looking at the ugliest side of life with no blinking or avoiding or sugarcoating has always been the purview of the music closest to America’s heart. As it has always been used, this collection uses the blues as the connective tissue that binds people together through the uphill climb that life can be.

Laura Citino is a Staff Book Reviewer for The Volt. She is originally from southeastern Michigan and currently teaches English and writes in Terre Haute, Indiana. Laura received her MFA in fiction from Eastern Washington University in Spokane, Washington, and attended Western Michigan University for undergraduate, where she studied creative writing and German. Her fiction and nonfiction has been published online and in journals such as Midwestern Gothic, Passages North, Bluestem, and Sou’Wester, and she has previously served as a regular contributor for Bark.

• This book was sent to Alternating Current by the author. The reviewer does not know the publisher or the author and received the book from Alternating Current at random. • Permalink • Tag: The Volt •

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