Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Fiction: Tiger Rag by Nicholas Christopher

You know it’s going to be a good year in fiction when the very first book you read in the year has the fine, sweet notes of Nicholas Christopher’s searing and beautiful Tiger Rag (Dial Press).

Jazz myths loom large in Tiger Rag, a book that is at least thinly based on  the life of jazz legend Buddy Bolden. I say “thinly” because, truly, not a lot is known about Bolden. His star burned hot, swift and terribly sad. Born in 1877 in New Orleans, at the age of 30 he was committed to the  Louisiana State Insane Asylum at Jackson where he stayed until his death in 1931 at the age of 54.

The things we do know about Bolden are shrouded in mist and mystery and the talented cornetist left no known recordings. None documented, that is. Rumors of his recordings still beat hot in the jazz community today. So it is that Christopher comes to embed unanswered questions and bits of intrigue into his own deeply felt version of what-might-have-been.

One of the myths is that Bolden made a recording in 1904 -- “Tiger Rag” -- that was subsequently lost in the intervening years. Christopher turns the mist into a Holy Grail of a tale that stretches from New Orleans in 1900 to present day Florida where a once-prominent anesthesiologist is dealing with the death of her career and the collapse of her family. On a trip to New York, the doctor and her jazz pianist daughter, a recovering addict, discover family links to the lost cylinder containing Buddy Bolden’s mythical recordings.

Christopher is the author of several beautiful books including The Bestiary, A Trip to the Stars and Franklin Flyer.  Those familiar with Christopher’s work will find a gentler, more refined soaring of the imagination here. This is not the stark magical realism encountered in The Bestiary or A Trip to the Stars. In some ways, the author stays pretty close to the straight and narrow here, at least comparatively so. Still, there is magic in Tiger Rag. And it’s not just in the plot. Christopher is the author of five other novels as well as books of poetry and a non-fiction work about noir. Tiger Rag seems perfectly the product of an author with this background and these interests. It is at times poetic in its beauty. It is thoughtful -- even contemplative, even while it is dark. And there is enough truth here to set you on your own journey of exploration. This is a gorgeous, memorable book peopled with characters so lifelike their pain seems contagious. I can’t encourage you strongly enough to take Christopher up on the offer of this magical ride. ◊

Sienna Powers is a contributing editor to January Magazine.

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

<< Home