Half-Blood Blues. Esi Edugyan.

Edugyan, Esi. Half-Blood Blues. Thomas Allen Toronto. 2011. F; 1/12.

This was a finalist for several big fiction awards, and I think it won the Canadian one. I remember seeing the author on TV, with the journalist commenting that Canadian fiction can still be about Europe and the United States.

I was immediately disappointed reading the first paragraph as I realized (quickly checking ahead to confirm) that the whole thing is rendered in black-boy patois. And (even though book-jacket commentators ooze “exquisite language… grace and soulful jazz cadences”) she doesn’t really maintain it, mixing her lovely sophisticated metaphors into sentences coming out of the mouths of uneducated if fabulously arty characters. “I felt sort of lightheaded, thin, near transparent with fear” says the first-person narrator, who most of the time talks jazz-o-lese (“What he go do a fool thing like that for? What’s he thinkin? Hell”) both to other characters and to us.

I couldn’t quite get over the (for me) affectedness of that. It’s this awful uncertainty we’ve created about political correctness, as part of the left-right nightmare that will continue until America dies in its sleep. Woah, baby! This has to be the real story, I can tell because everybody’s talkin de lingo. What is really in the author’s mind as she streams that at (educated well-spoken) readers like herself? If she didn’t have to consider the fake-authenticity feel we’re going to struggle with she’s not smart enough to have written this book. That leaves affected reverse snobbery on her part as one bothersome possibility.

But it’s a great story. The feel for the music is there if a bit infrequently, and there is a lovely plot twist that I probably should have figured out but was too busy being pissed off over things not seeming to make sense. The narrator Sid is an honest complicated antihero who gets cut from Louis Armstrong’s combo, does some extremely bad things to his friends, and descends into horror over a huge public embarrassment. He does get the girl (who eventually dies like nearly everybody else), but probably ends up alienating her too. Very credible male character and situations from a female author.

Edugyan looks from her bibliography to be a jazz and World War II academic. She sounded unassuming and smart in the short TV interview I saw (definitely no Bronx or Jamaica inflection). I suspect I’m being narrow-minded and unfair in objecting to the language. How else was she supposed to handle that? Anyway, this one just missed being a direct hit for me. 8.1

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 30 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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