Showing posts with label Adam Gussow. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Adam Gussow. Show all posts

Saturday, October 17, 2015

"BUSKER'S HOLIDAY" , a novel by Adam Gussow

27157422Years ago, in the Seventies, I was a literature major and eventual graduate student at a fine university where I was, of course, obsessed with finding the pulse of life, the vibe and life force of all things that matter through poetry, great, high gear novels and mad, insane, blues and jazz excursions to the end of any musical theory standing to be exhausted. I typed 60 words a minute, played a rough but savvy harmonica, and was concerned at getting to that indescribable "it" that lay behind the mere appearances of the ordered world we, as a species, were assigned to live in.

I was, as well, a carnival worker for five summers during the Seventies, starting in Del Mar,  California, and working my way up through the county fairs of the California coast, working my games, making my change, playing my harmonica at different truck stops up Pacific Highway and writing garbled poems and notes in many spiral notebooks in several tick-ridden motels from Costa Mesa up through Modesto, Turlock, Stockton, and Sacramento. Of course, I survived the enthusiasms and excesses of youth and slowly became a part of the mainstream I vowed to avoid and detest. I am, of course, satisfied I made the right life choice. But I do miss the pace, the drive, the rush of those days, forcing my literary knowledge to deal with the fluctuating dynamics of the natural world as it unhinged. This was the rush to be in the world, feet first, head submerged, experiencing what the unfiltered neighborhoods of the state held in complete thrall.

Adam Gussow, a professor of English and Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi, is among the best younger scholars of blues culture one is likely to come across. He is no less a superb, stylish, and gritty blues harmonica player who has, in his time, traveled and plied his trade as street musician and busker, most notably as part of the duo Satan and Adam, with guitarist/vocalist Sterling McGee. Gussow is the author of several fine books related to Southern and blues culture in America and wrote a fine memoir of his relationship with McGee, "Mister Satan's Apprentice." This is mentioned just to establish that Gussow isn't a mere dilettante on the blues, mastering a few tricks and signature moves and then resting on laurels and a reputation made long ago; Gussow continues to gig, with McGee, as a solo performer, and in collaboration with several other musicians, frequently in public, on the street, the hat out for loose change and scattered change, keeping himself honest with what he plays and maintaining a connection his vibe with the world of experience that is the energy the blues channels. He is a scholar who continues to seek the source, to find that invisible "it" behind the mere description and appearance of things as they present themselves.

His first novel, "Busker's Holiday," is, I imagine, a fictionalized accounting of his own quest, a young man at a particular moment of his life when what he's been doing in terms of study, romance and location no longer fits the skin he wears and gets an itch to try something else, to what happens. Set in the 80s, the novel regards the plight of McKay, a doctoral candidate in literature whose life has hit a rough patch. Reeling from problems in his relationship with his girlfriend, McKay jumps at the chance to go on a five-week trip to Europe with his friend Paul. McKay gathers up his harmonicas and his amp, a blues fan, eager to perform before crowds on the Continent. McKay, the seeker of more extraordinary experience beyond the books and bourgeois heartache he has known so far, plunges into the center of things and allows himself to be swept along.

There is something akin to novelist Henry James here, the 19th and early 20th Century American novelist who had as a central theme the confrontation of the New World (America) and the Old World (Europe). But where James' novels--"The American," "Wings of a Dove"--were long, measured, slow-paced and geared to consider the interior lives, the changes of the psyche, occurring over long periods, Gussow instead goes for the Beat-influenced insistence on sensation, speed, the influx of sound, smell, and blurred vision. There is the velocity and mania of Jack Kerouac here, that point where the novel opens up with its landings in Paris and beyond, but author Gussow has a better command of the technique. He keeps the tone and pacing right; Kerouac and the Beats are an evident and working influence on the style of this tale, but what we have here is something better and, I think, more honest to the experience. Kerouac is problematic for many of us, and for me, the issue was his willingness, his chronic need to make he already made pace even more intense with infusions of hip-argot, haphazardly placed modifiers. 

Kerouac used adjectives, verbs, similes, and metaphors "the way truck drivers uses ketchup at a diner." Gussow has a better command of the style, the instrument. He gets closer to the Charlie Parker concern of "making it all fit," the Spontaneous Bop Prosody that Kerouac's principal aims with his prolix excursions. The writing is vivid, alive, the mellifluous sentences flow when he goes at length, and the shorter sentences have something of the Hemingway craft of resonating terseness. The prose has a remarkable sense of balance as the sensations accumulate, seemingly one atop the other, like airplanes stacked over Holiday period airports, but rather than stumble or lose the beat, the details, the patter, the interior monologue reflecting upon and then joining in the conversation McMay is having with the world and the people he takes the journey with is deft, smooth. For all the temptation to write run-on sentences, without pause, until an idea actually hits him, Gussow has a remarkable craft here, giving the reader a broad, nearly all-encompassing view that at times threatens to become an impressionistic blur. He knows his tempos well and how effective they can be if used with the proper measures of grace and restrain. There is a poetic crystallization that is not sacrificed in the name of dredging tangents and facile sightseeing.  

 It is a recollection that resonates. McKay is delivered very well; an engaging, seeking, impatient, naive, curious man searching for knowledge and new means to express a growing feeling of a rich inner life. The writing is swift but disciplined, loose but constantly aware of where the rhythm truly is, is a match for the harmonica playing and instrumentation you've described. It is a beautiful and engaging accounting of being within the performance experience, when the chops fail, and where they come together.