The Jazz Singer


Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome will infuriate many readers, but that should not come as a shock to its author. Stanley Crouch has made a career as a provocateur par excellence, taking to heart Ralph Ellison’s dictum: When in Rome, do as the Greeks do. Ellison, of course, knew that to be Greek in Rome meant to attune yourself to your culture’s origins, rather than adopt its trends. Crouch, who has followed Ellison’s stubborn preference for the term Negro, has also anointed himself a shorer of ruins, and a shape-shifting one at that, if his recent Daily News and Salon columns are any indication. One minute, he’ll be excoriating GOP racists and calling for the preservation of affirmative action. The next, he’ll be defending Rudy Giuliani’s widely attacked response to the Dorismond police shooting.

Do years of postideological punditry prepare you for serious novel writing? Tom Wolfe, at least according to some, has made such a transition, and Crouch, like Wolfe, has cast himself in Balzac’s role of reporter-novelist with Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome, furiously collecting the minutiae of urban tales of sex and money. The heroine of this bildungsroman is Carla Hamsun, a Norwegian American jazz singer from South Dakota with overt biographical similarities to Peggy Lee, and this novel follows her troubled romance with the black tenor player Maxwell Davis. Paradoxically, to understand herself, Carla must first understand black culture: the music, the eros, and (this is a huge chunk of the book) the nasty banter. There is nothing superficial about her initiation; we never once witness her co-opting black slang. Rather, she obsessively studies the phrasing of Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald so that she, too, can sing America. The novel is subtitled A Novel in Blues and Swing, and even though we can never quite hear what Maxwell and Carla sound like, we are presented with a uniquely demystified account of a music that usually inspires vague deification and meta-phorical cliché. These characters not only reach the musical epiphanies typical of jazz fiction, but also practice scales, mimic records, and shrug off clueless critics.

But if her musical quest requires the discipline of a wunderkind, her social immersion entails sitting through many lengthy invectives about everything from the history of the tenor saxophone to the evils of black studies departments. Maxwell riffs on the racial tropology of the Rocky movies. Bobby Lee Robinson, a painter we meet in the final chapter, posits a Homeric theory on gender that includes a swipe at Winnie Mandela. The bass player Jed—a white musician successfully assimilated into this black jazz elite—imagines a postmortem confrontation between Bach and Miles Davis. Anyone familiar with Crouch’s polemics will recognize these voices as variations on the same voice.

Sweet, pretty, carnal Carla provides a counterpoint to these walking, talking editorial pages, wincing, like the rest of us, at sexism, cruelty, and the use of the word nigger from offenders black and white. Carla’s whiteness is not like the overpowering whiteness of Ahab’s whale, but more like Hans Castorp’s blandness, at least until she shakes the South Dakota dust from her boots. And yet we empathize as the hopelessly earnest heroine persistently tries to break into hierarchies both black and male. Commenting on her prominent posterior, Maxwell tells Carla that despite her “seriously negroid body,” she’s “as white as white can be.” When her classics professor father and Maxwell exclude her from a dialectic on Joyce, Beethoven, Louis Armstrong, and Sophocles, she’s sharp enough to follow it, but only the reader has access to her frustration. “You’re also, guys, saying what I’m saying,” she thinks to herself. In a particularly gruesome scene—which is saying a lot about a novel that includes a description of mass fist-fucking in an s/m club—Carla is raped by a black boxer, making us wonder how much this white girl must be tortured before she has the right to sing the blues. Even if that scene goes over the top, there are other moments where Crouch boldly crosses the color line in the spirit of Ellison’s mixed paint. The main conflict of this book is the incompatibility of the racial personae of Carla and Maxwell, and Crouch’s book is about how messy, yet necessary, such clashes can be.

One of Crouch’s favorite refrains is “You’ve got to watch that Negro. He’ll upset you.” At one point, Maxwell says it about Louis Armstrong singing W.C. Handy. At another, he says it about himself. When the refrain is repeated yet again about Carla’s rapist, you have to wonder whether it’s one of Crouch’s ironic motifs or, as Handy might put it, his “careless love” of a phrase. Regardless, the point is well taken. Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome is, like the author himself, oversized, unruly, maybe even a little bullying. Yet with its vivid evocations of life on the bandstand, in the bedroom, and in the trenches of racial warfare, the book also strikes a resonant chord that tells us much about the way we live now. You’ve got to watch that Stanley Crouch. He’ll upset you.