Evan Guilford-Blake is no first-time author, he’s written some 40 plays, which have all been produced, and has won no fewer than 40 playwrighting contests. And that really shows. American Blues is a short-ish book, which contains five stories on a theme. It’s the theme that connects them all, and the theme is blues: the blues sensation, and blues as music.
There are five stories in this collection, each of them takes place in a different decade, and the titles give them dates: 1977, 1957, 1943, 2010, and 1962. I’ll focus on two of them. The first one, “Sonny’s Blues 1977”, of which we also featured an excerpt on our site, tells the story of an impoverished blues musician in 1977, in Chicago. He is fighting with a pain in his stomach.
“clubs are bookin’ comics instead of jazzmen”
“Doc said it “concerned” him and Sonny oughta be concerned, too, but he’s not. Hell, wasn’t much a horn man could do about it. Man’s got a problem, man’s got A Problem if the man don’t got the money to take care of it, and horn men? they don’t got it. Yeah, he gets paid pretty good for club gigs, but there ain’t so many of those anymore, clubs are bookin’ comics instead of jazzmen, folks are goin’ to discos where the music all sounds the same and is all recorded, they wanna dance ‘stead of listen, and the record companies got plenty of sax players to play that background shit” – this snippet perfectly illustrates the flavour of the story. Sonny’s character pops out of this inner monologue narration, and as a reader it feels almost like hearing the old man’s rumblings and mumblings as you go through this fast-paced story.
It reminds me of stage plays by Samuel Beckett, with a fist of Bukowski.
There are Sonny’s thoughts about his ex-wife, who recently left him, his mother and siblings back in L.A., and we perceive a brief and titillating semi-profile of Sonny’s new mate Mary-Jane in his bare abode.
This story, like all the stories in this collection, has a closed-microcosmos feel to it. Reading this, you get dragged into a world where this Sonny, his two friends, three family members, the doctor and the shadow of his ex-wife are about the only people in the whole world. The noise of the world at large barely can penetrate this universe : it reminds me a bit of stage plays by Samuel Beckett, with a fist of Bukowski.
These stories are unflinching and delve into serious themes that affect many lives, such as caring for a disabled relative and abuse in the family. There’s even a bit of sexual titillation.
Everything comes to a head when he shows up at his ex-wife’s house party drunk
My favourite tale was the 2010 one, which again zooms in on the life of a middle-aged man whose life has taken a turn for the worse : his wife divorced him, his company sacked him, and these changes combined with a new passion for junkfood takeaways are showing their imprint on his waistline. He gets a gym membership and dresses up for a job interview, but everything comes to a head when he shows up at his ex-wife’s house party drunk, tries to punch her new partner, and his grown-up son berates him in the car for being a loser and an embarrassment.
It captures the unreconstructed, unsuccessful male in all his un-glory, misplaced pride and chipped self-worth
What I like about this book is that it captures the unreconstructed, unsuccessful male in all his un-glory, misplaced pride and chipped self-worth. In no way do these tales celebrate ideals or strike up notes of celebration, and in no way does it solicit anyone’s sympathy. I often found myself thinking “how true”, and then: “how backward” – and it left me feeling kind of blue. But I think that may have been the whole point.
Review by Polly Trope