A fine novel allows you to hear its throbbing heart:
“In his solo he soared. He flew above the city, hovering on his dark wings. He brought out the saddest tune he’d ever found. It was the sound of empty beds and eating alone, children locked in a room and widows with nowhere to go. Somebody said that on the eighth day God created loneliness. So Napoleon must have been close to God because he was making it come out of his horn.”
If that sounds like jazz, it ought to. Mary Morris’ eighth novel, The Jazz Palace, encompasses the seismic shifts of turbulent decades, the early 20th century in Chicago. It gives us the breakups and reconfigurations of immigrant families, the beat-downs and triumphs of struggling outsiders. Yet one way or another, all those strands tie in with the music and its development.
The historical material itself seems to dance in this telling. One of the novel’s pleasures is the skill with which Morris glides from fictional to actual events of World War I or Prohibition. As she colors in the background, she never neglects the drama. Even her etymology for the word “jazz” proves integral to a character’s coming of age. Clearly the author has learned from her travel memoirs, four to date, starting with Nothing To Declare in 1988.
Jazz Palace eventually zeroes in on three figures of the Chicago streets. There’s the conflicted Jew, Benny Lehrman, a piano prodigy in the family of an ambitious immigrant businessman; Napoleon Hill, an orphaned African American who has scrapped his way to headliner status with his trumpet; and Pearl Chimbrova, also Jewish, first-generation, who sets up her own speak-easy called the Jazz Palace. There, Benny and Napoleon land a regular gig.
As those three carom off each other, the action matches the complexity of the book’s inevitable comparison, HBO’s Prohibition-era drama Boardwalk Empire. Morris does without the tommy guns, but she doesn’t flinch when it comes to danger or violence. She opens with a disaster from 1915, when hundreds drowned in a capsized Lake Michigan ferry. Thereafter, she proves an adept jazz soloist herself, often tossing in some scrap of melody early, then picking it up a decade or so further into the plot, airing out the intrigue anew.
One false note comes as Benny settles into adulthood: His commitment to love and marriage feels right, but not his renunciation of his musical gifts. Still, a closing detail or two suggest he may yet return to the keyboard. As for the trajectories of Pearl and Napoleon, those embody both their sensibilities and their times with perfect naturalness. The Jazz Palace understands what great things come from staying light on your feet.
John Domini reviewed this book for The Washington Post.