Kenneth Calhoun: “Nightblooming”

08/17/2011 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The Paris Review, Issue 189, 2009. Part of the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, 2011.

It’s a great concept piece: take five grandfatherly musicians, write from the viewpoint of their new twenty-two-year-old drummer (who has been looking for a father figure: his recently died), and swing away from death with a jaunty tone, as if the blares and burps of a  ‘bone can drown out the flares and flubs of a bone (hips, mostly). “The dudes are severely elderly, these Nightblooming Jazzmen,” says Tristan, who is dubbed Stanley by the old-timers, but they’re played against type: “You’re not a cockblocker, are you?” asks the leader, Clyde, as the sextet decides to drop in on some “nice old ladies; they also tell him that if he doesn’t like their style, he can “go sit on a dick.” They’re confident, well-traveled, and exactly what the mellow, pot-smoking Tristan needs.

There’s a point, too, as suggested by the title. For all the liveliness — Tristan, learning how to “cut in” on a box step, winds up pushing one of the women, a drunken eighty-year-old, higher and higher on a tire swing — there’s the inescapable undercurrent of its lateness. There’s a lot of darkness in the world, and there’s a bitterness to their fading music: “Fellas started dying,” says Horace, very simply. “Not because they whooped it up or got in car wrecks–the way young bands die. These guys just died from staying in the world too long.” And so: one last bloom in the brief of night.

If only that bloom and that concept were more defined: the five “dirty grandpas” all blend together, their against-type roles end up being drawn for shock, all while Calhoun unsubtly continues to reference Tristan’s lack of family and friends. By the fist-flinging climax, in which one of the musicians reels against this “facade,” the story has dwindled down to one note, sour and unresolved. We want to live, the story cries, but we know that we’re going to die: instead of providing the dissonance, rebellion, or rage this calls for, the author errs in playing against type again, with his light laughs. He has not done enough to allow us to make our own conclusions about this final, dusky bloom, and his narrator’s “mellow” voice works against the novel circumstances of the story: he’s too dulled to surprise anyone, including himself. He goes effortlessly with the flow, no conflict to be found here . . . and yet by the end, he’s suddenly supposed to have grown up? That’s the problem with improvisational jazz — all those riffs, flutters, and moments are ultimately forgettable without a motif, and that emotion is wasted without being set to an active purpose.

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