Sunday, May 29, 2016

"Sonny's Blues" (1957)

Read story by James Baldwin online.

James Baldwin's classic meditation is made up of equal parts brooding memoir, artful fictional devices, and, perhaps most surprising, a turn toward music criticism. Sonny is the younger brother of the first-person narrator by seven years, a jazz musician and on-and-off heroin addict. Their parents died before either was 25. They were raised in Harlem. The carefully unnamed narrator is a judgmental moralist, a high school algebra teacher embarrassed by indigenous African-American culture such as jazz. Interestingly, Sonny, who is a Charlie Parker follower, is embarrassed by the mention of Louis Armstrong, in one conversation where the narrator tries to connect with and understand him. "No. I'm not talking about none of that old-time, down home crap," Sonny retorts about Armstrong. The relationship between the two brothers is complicated as all family relationships are, with the additional burden of the African-American context. Here is where Baldwin is at his best in this story. He has concocted a voice for his narrator that balances delicately between stuffy erudition, reflexive contempt, and rage, dictating his words with an icy clinical precision. He's ashamed of Sonny's heroin addiction and legal troubles, but he made a promise to their mother the last time he saw her alive (a promise he hasn't kept very well) that he would look out and be there for Sonny when Sonny needed him. To the narrator, it's one more aggravating responsibility in a life of drudgery and frustration. Though he has a happy and good marriage, the narrator and his wife recently lost their 4-year-old daughter to polio. In the end, however, grudgingly and mostly against his will, he agrees to step into the nightclubs he detests to see Sonny perform. That performance is a revelation for the narrator and reader alike, as the music connects with the narrator in extraordinary ways. It's a wonderful voice in that moment, full of its own intelligence but with barely a vocabulary for the way the music moves and plays and develops. As he describes what the musicians are doing and the various elements of the song and arrangement, it evolves into as effective a description of real-time jazz as I've encountered anywhere. It's shorn particularly of Mezz Mezzrow hipsterism, because that is exactly the kind of thing the narrator loathes. In turn, that leads him to understand Sonny and fully see him for the first time. Really good stuff.

American Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Raymond Carver and Tom Jenks

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