The Omni-american


Yes. I got the idea from reading Thomas Mann. Mann was of consuming interest to me; he was what really got me going. My Thomas Mann file dates back to 1938, when I had just become curious about writing and was studying literary devices. I read the preface to The Magic Mountain , where Mann talks about how he took the leitmotif method from Wagner. He was using music as a model. The idea appealed to me tremendously. Now, Mann’s context was Bach, Beethoven, and Wagner. What was mine? I started checking through American music. One thing that did not do it for me was Rhapsody in Blue . So I thought, What’s closest to me? And Luzana Cholly, the blues guitar player from Train Whistle Guitar , was one of the first characters I drew, in 1951. Here’s what I said about writing fiction way back then: “We all learn from Mann, Joyce, Hemingway, Eliot and the rest, but I’m also trying to learn to write in terms of the tradition I grew up in, the Negro tradition of blues, stomps, ragtime, jumps and swing. After all, very few writers have done as much with American experience as Jelly Roll Morton, Count Basic and Duke Ellington.”


• So you went all around the block, by way of Thomas Mann, to come back home.

You’d never get where I got by just listening to a goddamn guitar player in a honky-tonk. You’d never write a novel. I had to come through novels, and there were no Negro novels that reached the level of sophistication I was reaching for. The New Negro , Alain Locke’s anthology of the so-called Harlem Renaissance, was sandlot stuff compared with Eliot, Pound, Mann, and Joyce.

• Your fiction is largely the product of a long grappling with what you say are the four basic narrative categories. Can you explain your very particular understanding of tragedy, comedy, melodrama, and farce?

In order to have a story, you have contention. You have a desire, a wish, but something’s in the way. So you have agon—struggle. The one that carries the values we identify with, we call the protagonist. The one that threatens those values is the antagonist. One is indispensable to the other. No dragon, no hero.

Now, what are the interactions of this antagonism? When the protagonist is overcome, it’s a tragedy. When he succeeds and he reaches a new perception of life and resolves his misunderstanding, it’s a comedy. If you wipe out the dragon, that’s melodrama. You have what the Greeks call a deus ex machina , the resolution of the antagonism through efficient engineering. It’s like a Western, where the gunfighter comes into town and kills the bad guy as the swordsman once slew dragons. That’s what social science literature does. All these poor people can’t do such and such because they’re poor, so you wipe out poverty.

• And farce?

Well, farce means you accept the fact that the whole shebang could come apart at any time—your universe, everything you know. Farce brings you closer to the point of view Hemingway expressed as “winner take nothing.” You’re back to entropy, back to the fact that life adds up to nada , to nothing.

• It sounds like modern consciousness.

To me, farce is an expression of the truly contemporary sensibility. But a new kind of farce—what I called straight-faced farce. That’s the Murray dimension. Most exemplars of the modern consciousness go after despair. But farce lets you face what Hemingway faced: that the winner shall take nothing. That ultimately it doesn’t matter whether you succeed or fail. You’re gonna die, man. There’s a beautiful love affair, and the bride and groom are killed the next day. But you persist.

Now, here is where it all hooks up. To me, the blues idiom and farce are more or less synonymous. And they embrace all the categories. The blues idiom lets you deal with tragedy, comedy, melodrama, and farce in the same statement. Take a blues song. The lyrics are tragic. The lyrics tell a tale of woe. But the presentation counterstates that. The musicians are playing something full of life and joy and mockery; that’s the comic aspect. The jazz musician is the questing hero of melodrama, who crafts a sword, his chops, his technique, to slay the dragon of the blues. But the entire blues statement is a farce, a recognition that you can establish order but it always reverts to chaos. The blues will be back tomorrow!

DON’T tell me about Thomas Jefferson owning slaves; he wrote the Declaration of Independence.”

• In The Seven League Boots , I miss a sense of struggle, of Scooter grappling with conflict, inner or outer. He has a pretty easy sail.

Why do you say that? He doesn’t yet know what he wants to do with himself. What’s he accomplished?

• He’s the bassist in the best jazz band in America.