Joseph Coulson’s second novel, Of Song and Water, concerns a jazz musician coming to endings: a career on the skids because of hands that can no longer make the chords he needs; a boat, falling apart and weighted with memories of his father, and of his father’s father before him (both men casting long shadows); a divorce; a former love he walked away from for his music; and a daughter preparing to leave for school.
All the ingredients are in place for a sprawling social novel, intertwining the changing face of race relations in the second half of the 20th century with the progression of the Moore family from illegal booze-running during Prohibition to financial success in a boating store, and finally back to a broken-down jazz musician who cannot escape his forebears and drives a delivery truck—a beer delivery truck—to make ends meet. In a sense Of Song and Water is this book, but Coulson’s writing doesn’t sprawl. It’s boiled down—the style of this work is more in line with the music his protagonist Coleman Moore plays: simple in presentation, a three piece group instead of Armstrong’s All Stars.
Throughout the novel Coulson leaves everything open to interpretation until, suddenly, he doesn’t, and we see why things are the way they are. It’s a device Coulson uses effectively and subtly. We are given confusing bits of information about Moore’s grandfather, H.M.—Havelock Moore, the aforementioned rum runner, a true life pirate with more than one secret hidden away. The narrative moves forward in time, with Coleman’s father telling him that H.M. “doesn’t have a face,” then back in time to H.M. as a young man, struggling with the end of Prohibition. We progress forward again to the dark resolution of a problem landlord who is harassing H.M.’s elderly, widowed mother. Moving back and forth in this way, only giving the reader bits and pieces of the whole story, is not a new idea, but Coulson does it like a master. Across movements foreword and backward in both Coleman’s memory and within the stories found in those memories, one is never lost.
Because of this style, Coleman seems at times to know more than he should—How does he know what lies in H.M.’s heart and in his father’s heart? Yet as the narrative unfolds we learn how Coleman discovered what he knows: either by uncovering external information or by looking into his own heart, which is not so different from the hearts of those who came before him.
As the story travels among three generations of Moores we see young Jason Moore choosing to become Coleman Moore, a name that sounds more jazz-worthy to him. We see him studying with an elderly jazz legend who lives nearby—a black man, for whom Jason cuts grass—and paying for it when a group of Jason’s peers disapprove of him associating with blacks:
Schoolmates in bright white T-shirts come tearing down the street shouting and laughing. He can feel them gaining and knows that if he looks over his shoulder he’ll lose speed, but he can’t resist and his head begins turning and he sees a boy almost at his heels. He rounds the corner and spots the familiar fence and jumps over the closed gate but catches his foot and goes sprawling on the tiny front lawn—on the thick grass that should have been cut before now except that the rain made it impossible. He starts to get up when a boy pounces on his back and holds his face to the ground, cursing in his ear. He hears the voices of the other boys closing in and they fall on him, too, their fists pounding his rib cage and the back of his head, and all the boys yelling or screaming, ‘Nigger pile. Nigger Pile.’
At the bottom, he can’t breathe, already breathless from running, and he believes that he’ll suffocate, drown in the watery grass, and he feels a hot pressure building behind his eyes, his arms and legs pinned to the ground, when suddenly a tremendous blast, an explosion, blows everything into silence.
He looks up. The weight rolls off his body. On the porch steps is Otis with a shotgun aimed at heaven.
We see Coleman’s father, Dorian, shedding the trappings of his father’s legacy—transforming from a rum-runner to an extremely successful boating supply store owner—and how it leaves Coleman the son adrift; walled off from his family’s history, there’s nothing to turn back to when his jazz hands fail him. Coleman works at restoring his father’s boat, trying to find a new vocation. “Time drags or runs like water,” again and again, sprinkled throughout the text like signposts: the story struggles against time, relinquishes itself to the current, and then struggles again. Happy endings, when they come, are bittersweet—nothing is taken without something else being lost.
Which brings us back to the jazz. Either Coulson has played jazz or he is a very thorough researcher. The passages with Coleman watching others play, or taking the stage himself, are wonderful in their evocation of the mood of a performance.
Moreover, the novel itself is pervaded with the feel of jazz. Like the best of the smoky, slow-burn works,Of Song and Water unfolds with deceptively simple writing, the meaning and feeling building up almost unnoticed. Characters move in and out of the main storyline like players moving forward to deliver a bass solo, a drum solo.
Flourishes, when they come, are small. Words are chosen carefully to build each idea and, in turn, the story; the overall effect is like Coleman’s music—understated, steady bass undercurrent, drum flourishes, and guitar work that, if you’re only partway listening, seems competent enough, but when you give yourself up to the story, let it settle around you, can change the colors in the room.