In the American Midwest, the presumptive pastoral calm and social conformity associated with the term is more myth than reality. Heartland weather is capricious and extreme. Temperatures abruptly shift, clouds boil up against clear skies, thuggish winds wreak havoc, storms rampage. And this meteorological drama is often matched by human turmoil, ensuring that the Heartland is a place registering harrowing confrontations and abrupt disorder.
Born in Detroit, Joseph Coulson is closely attuned to the region’s gently rolling land and chimerical sky, as well as its majestic Great Lakes. He also knows a thing or two about the cadences of an urban core ravaged by the divisions of race and class. A poet and playwright as well as a novelist, Coulson is a meticulous stylist who manages to align the tumultuous inner world of his characters with the sensuous outer world. The Vanishing Moon (2004), Coulson’s much praised debut novel, followed the lives of a midwestern family coping with blindness and other tragedies: the Great Depression, World War II, the violence of the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the quandary of two brothers in love with the same woman, a gifted pianist. Coulson is also a musician—and the lyricism of his prose reflects that fact—and in this new novel, he writes of music and musicians with rare understanding.
Of Song and Water tells the story of a talented but burdened jazz guitarist. Coleman Moore, born Jason, is a third-generation Lake Huron sailor as well as a musician. He drives a beer truck, in pale imitation of his grandfather Havelock’s nervy and profitable escapades as a rumrunner who navigated the dark waters between Canada and Detroit. Coleman inherited his father’s sailboat, where he often take refuge: drinking and brooding, docked in Humbug Marina. Not only doesn’t he sail anymore, he doesn’t play the guitar much, either. His hands are damaged, stiff and cramped. Sometimes the pain “grows like a rolling fire, waves of misery that pressure and pills cannot relieve.” The pain is in his heart, too, for he can barely stand to listen to music anymore—music reminds him of all he has lost. Divorced, he tries to be a good father to his wise-beyond-her-years 17-year-old daughter, but he doesn’t make much money and he doesn’t have much to show for himself.
Coulson renders time fluid and circular, slipping from the present to the past without warning. In one paragraph, the reader is privy to Coleman’s thoughts as he climbs on board his father’s boat on a bitter winter night; the next paragraph skips back to his grandfather’s life. Toughened by the Great War and harboring a secret far more explosive than trafficking in contraband whiskey, Havelock goes legitimate, establishing Halyard & Mast Marine Supply in Bay City, near Saginaw, Michigan. Happiest while sailing alone on Lake Huron, Havelock names his son Dorian, which means “from the sea.” When Dorian finally acquires his own boat, one made of fiberglass rather than wood, his father condemns it as a “plastic tub,” and tells Dorian’s son, Jason, that a wooden boat “is a living thing because it’s made of living things. There’s no life in plastic. It’s empty. It’s blank—like a white whale.” Dorian christens his boat Pequod, and the reader becomes alert to allusions to Moby-Dick, a masterpiece not to be casually looted.
Coleman’s fraught family memories are spliced with memories of his initiation into music. Hired to cut a neighbor’s grass, young Jason is hooked from the instant he sees Otis Young’s guitar and picks it up without hesitation or permission. Somehow “he felt more like himself just holding it.” Otis, who once played with such greats as Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, and John Coltrane, recognizes a kindred spirit in the boy, and offers lessons. Otis is a haloed character; the reader can’t help but wonder if Coulson was thinking about his teacher and mentor, the poet Stephen Tudor, when he created Otis. The novel is dedicated to Tudor, the author of Haul-Out: New and Selected Poems and a devoted Great Lakes mariner. Tudor was lost on Lake Huron in 1994, a haunting death that may have inspired some of the incidents in this melancholy novel.
It turns out that Coleman spent his best years playing with a bassist named Brian—who would prove to be an extraordinarily valiant and generous friend—and a drummer named Tom. Their group, the CBT Trio, would garner praise for their “elegiac mood,” a phrase that perfectly describes the novel’s timbre. Of Song and Water emulates jazz in its fractured time, syncopated language, and rich variations on a theme. As Coleman thinks about Otis and his immeasurable influence, he remembers being hassled by other white boys for spending time with a black man. He also recalls his choice of Coleman for a stage name, one commonly associated with African Americans, and his fear that “any value or substance he had, any claim to authenticity, came from playing jazz with a black man. In the back of his mind, he wondered if he was really an imposter, a fraud.” But his enthrallment to music is genuine, his ambition immense. He chooses music over his relationship with Jennifer, and loses his one true love. And his hubris, combined with racial tensions, lead to his downfall at the site of his greatest triumphs, the Green Mill, Chicago’s legendary jazz club.
Coulson navigates a narrow channel between poetic fiction and melodrama, charting his course with a set of not always finely calibrated symbols and metaphors. The dialogue is as nimble and affecting as the virtuoso music of the jazz guitar masters that Coulson cites, from Wes Montgomery to Joe Pass. Coulson’s complicated characters are rendered with resonant detail, the gleanings of close and avid observation. He has a knack for creating intriguing female characters, including Coleman’s over-the-top landlady, a bossy and sexy evangelical who stands in sly counterpoint to a malevolent landlord who has the misfortune of meeting up with Havelock. Coleman himself, battered by booze, still manages to be at once morose and funny, absolutely determined to overcome his pain and exorcise his demons. He still hears his grandfather declaring, “A Moore never sinks,” a piece of pure bravado that both Havelock and Dorian rather horrifically disprove, but a mantra Coleman hopes will sustain him.
The thorny relationships Coulson choreographs in this book embody in provocative ways questions of power and social convention. Of particular notice is Brian’s immense kindness. He takes Coleman in and cares for him after his hands are brutally injured, generosity that proves the adage “No good deed goes unpunished” when bigoted neighbors make trouble, believing the friends are a racially mixed gay couple.
Coulson evokes the rapture Of Song and Water, the transcendence found in playing music and sailing. His hero thinks, “Music was a fast-running stream, an unspoken prayer.” That’s what Coulson wants his fiction to be, a conduit to a higher power, a way to feel free, however fleetingly, from the weight of the self. Sailing, music, literature—each engenders connection and rises above it at the same time. For most of this many-fathomed novel, Coulson stays in the groove. When he falters and drifts, it’s because he’s trying too hard; the story line can feel contrived. He gets caught in the wake of Melville’s Pequod and all the splendor of Moby-Dick’s metaphors and moral calculus—not that it isn’t pleasurable to ponder Coulson’s variations on Melville’s themes, but such moments intrude on the spell he casts.
What of crippled Coleman Moore? He learns harsh lessons about the cost of ambition, and he discerns a strange and troubling truth: we inherit the moral failings and crimes of the generations who have gone before. Coleman “considers whether or not the sacrifice of his hands served as some sort of redemption, a strange rite of passage—a fated balancing of the scales.” Does such reasoning help? “I’ve paid for more than my crimes,” he says. “And no schedule of penance will restore my hands.” But Coleman can alleviate his loneliness and all the beautiful imagery Coulson has seeded throughout this story eventually blossoms in a shower of redemption.
Of Song and Water, a more tightly focused novel than Coulson’s first, derives its unique style from jazz and does a fine job examining the ways that social tensions exert pressure on individual lives not in terms of historic events, but as manifested in personal conflicts.