Tuesday, February 03, 2004

Novella: Jazz and Halloween

Pork Pie Hat, by Peter Straub, Orion Publishing, 1999

So I got a late Christmas present last month from my friend Brian in New York. Brian is a consulting editor with one of the larger publishers, and deeply dedicated to the business (as opposed to the art) of making books . The gift consisted of a collection of books he has acquired over the past year and thought I might like - an Ambrose Bierce mystery, a Lucius Shephard collection of shorts, a collection of evidence from the Smoking Gun website, and a book of alternate histories with a right-of-center slant.

And he sent me a slender volume, a UK edition of one of the Criminal Records series of novellas, by Peter Straub, who did Ghost Story and (with Steven King) The Talisman. I’ve managed to avoid both major works so far, but it was a slim book, so I curled up with this one.

Excellent stuff. This is a tale in three parts, short enough to allow you to appreciate its wanderings and slowly come to realize why the tale is being told the way it is. The first part is of the narrator, who goes to New York as a young man and becomes a jazz fan. He discovers one of the original jazz greats, who taught the artists that he followed, still alive and playing. He interviews the jazzman (the "Hat" of the title), and ends up doing what would become the definitive interview with the man, an interview conducted on Halloween night.

But Hat told him another story that evening, after the tapes ran out but the gin bottle was still half-full. A story of his Halloween as a boy. This is the second part of the tale, and is as creepy as any Halloween tale, and here Straub lives up to his reputation. He tells the tale of Hat, but makes the wise choice of not trying to catch dialect or accent, instead just following the rhythm of the way the man would talk, and in doing so brings the tale to life. The tale involves a dare to go to the forbidden shanty town, and what he and a friend find there.

The third part is what happened next, after the tale was told and the interview (sans story) was published. The callow young Jazz fan grew up and then reconnected with the music of his youth, and discovers that not all of the tale told was true, and that some of it was more true than even Hat was willing to admit. And that casts the entire story in a completely different light, frightening in a different way entirely.

Its a slender book, as I said, and a wonderful one, mixing New York Jazz Scene and backwoods Mississipi with ease. What impressed me throughout this was the way Straub fit it all together, complete with the lies told and the truths glossed over and the way the truth tends to come to the surface, like a photograph developing underneath the chemicals and the red lights.

Good book - its a British edition, so I have no idea if its available over here, or in what form. But its worth chasing down.

More later,