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Spanning more than sixty years from the Civil War to the early 1920s, and moving from the battlefields of the South to New York City, through Paris, London, Constantinople, and Coney Island, The Notorious Dr. August features Augustus Fitzwilliam Boyd, alias Dr. August, an improvisational pianist who believes his music is sometimes inspired by the spirit world.
He is in love with Isaac Kemp, an ex-slave who only sporadically returns his affections and who himself successfully woos Alice Pangborn, a rather prim white governess. The three, locked in a strange and often painful love triangle, travel the world--until a horrible tragedy forces them all to examine the choices they have made and shakes up their relationships in ways none of them could have predicted.
Rich in historical detail and musical knowledge, The Notorious Dr. August is a brilliantly written exploration of race, class, spirituality, and sexuality -- and of what it really means to love another.
Christopher Bram is the author of eight other novels, including Gods and Monsters (originally titled Father of Frankenstein), which was made into an Academy Award-winning film. Bram was a 2001 Guggenheim Fellow and received the 2003 Bill Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement. He lives in New York City.
Life is eternal, but lives are short. Immortality is my rock as well as my bread and butter. Yet I still love the mortal, the temporal, the physical-the luxuriant overcoat of the Oversoul. My own coat is in tatters, but I remain inordinately fond of it. As my sojourn here approaches its end, my Metaphysicals suggest that I record a few scenes from my time among naifs and knaves, gods and ghosts. And with the friend whom I loved for sixty years. Loved yet never understood. Perhaps I can begin to understand him now that he is dead. A message from the other side assures us that he has departed the world, this time for good.
Very well, then. I was born. In 1850 in New York.
I end my days in the city where I began, a fine irony for someone who has been out in the world and beyond. But we're in another part of that city, and a whole new century. When I was a boy, this was a mere village north of town, a handful of steeples and rooftops visible across the meadows from the promenade atop the high walls of the old reservoir at Forty-second Street. Now Harlem is a city within the city, a realm of squealing children and fussing mothers by day, laughing men, braying autos, and raucous new music by night. I like this music, loose, humorous grab bags of mood and melody performed by self-made royalties: King Oliver, Duke Ellington, Prince Jazz. It pours from the clubs when you walk me through the raccoon-furred crowds of Lenox Avenue on snowy evenings, a bald white crow in dark glasses on your tolerant, guiding arm, or insinuates itself through the ether into a radio cabinet in our snug little rooms outside time.
It has been a marvelous age of invention: radio, aeroplane, electric light, the telephone, and fellatio. Oh, yes, the last was invented in 1862. By Giacomo Barry Fitzwilliam, my uncle.
Well, he was not really an uncle but a distant cousin. And I suspected early on that he did not invent that intimate act, or it would not bear a Latin name. Uncle Jack was neither a Roman nor a priest. He was a musician, a gloomy violinist with drooping whiskers and the lean build of a bat or badly furled umbrella. He toured the smaller cities of the East as "the American Paganim," believing he paid Paganini a great compliment. Everything unkind that gets said of musical artists-that we are vain, petty, self-centered, and mad-can be said with perfect justice of Uncle Jack. 1 was his accompanist for a time, on the piano in smoky theaters and drafty town halls, aboard trains and coaches where I tended our luggage, and in the sagging beds of cheap boardinghouses. I was also adept on the melodeon, pipe organ, and transverse flute.
Aunt Ada turned me over to this pompous scarecrow when I was fourteen. Her tiny rooms on East Thirteenth Street, behind the Academy of Music, were crowded by her two ambitious, pushing, opera-singing daughters. "Augustus, you are in my way," "Augustus, take this note to the theater." "Augustus, you are in my chair." Their enormous balloon skirts squashed through doorways and whistled against the wallpaper, Quarters became more crowded still with the return of their adored brother, wounded at Chancellorsville, and there was no longer room for me.
We were a musical household, in the pseudo-Italian manner of Irish Protestants. A piano was always present, and I can no more remember learning to play than I remember learning to speak. I must have taken in some of my beautiful mother's gifts with her milk before she passed away in my infancy. Accompanying my cousins when they rehearsed for auditions or lullabying my aunt when she was incapacitated by headache, I first enjoyed music for the pleasure that it gave to other people. Orphans are quick to mistake the satisfaction of others for love.
Life with Uncle Jack quickly disabused me of that notion. But I cannot claim that his bedtime attentions were torture. He loved fame more than he loved the flesh, his own as well as mine, and he was the flautist there, believing I offered him a magic elixir of youth. All I had to do was lie back and enjoy. His erratic needs gave me a useful trump card in our constant contest of master and servant. I spent my early years living by the seat of my pants, including those occasions when I didn't wear any.
Should I speak of such things? I compose this for my Metaphysicals, and my own amusement, yet wonder now if some publisher might not remember the notorious Dr. August and offer money for his story, The Eternal is very fine, but it doesn't buy dinner. Form may follow function, but function follows cash. Never mind, Tristan. Write it all down, my recording angel, every word. Later we can delete and shape and lie.