The Best of Jackson Payne: A Novel

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9780226268682: The Best of Jackson Payne: A Novel
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When Charles Quinlan, an academic obsessed with jazz, starts exploring the life and death of Jackson Payne, a fictional tenor-sax player, he can't imagine where his research will lead. Told in a series of dazzling riffs by everyone from Payne's lovers to his fellow musicians, The Best of Jackson Payne is a novel that swings unlike any other.

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Review:

Although Jack Fuller's seventh book sounds more like a CD than a novel, it's an apt bit of obscurantism. The story skitters and swings as much musically as narratively, and the title's fictional saxophonist leads the itinerant, dissipated life of a bebop genius. With its medley of reflections, interviews, and music-theory discourses, The Best of Jackson Payne unfolds a bit like a work of jazz itself, with distinctively stateside riffs on race and art.

Payne resides enigmatically at the center of the novel's swirl of recollections. He also occupies to near-exclusivity the consciousness of the biographer who is methodically sifting through the detritus of Payne's life. "At times it seemed to Quinlan like trying to reconstruct a building from its wreckage." Still, "by listening to Payne play, Quinlan felt sure he was able to divine things about the man that simply could not otherwise be known." What he discovers is a musician who, though gifted from youth, pursues every vice available to the club player. Through prison stays, heroin binges, and turbulent romances, Payne retains not only his genius but also an uncompromising, often isolating, willfulness. Only a dalliance with Islam and an improbable comeback as a visionary experimentalist temporarily stay his decline. Ultimately, Payne can't elude his indiscretions, and--messiah-like--discovers the world can't accept his many sacrifices.

Quinlan's story often feels somewhat less than tangential when set beside Payne's, but Fuller maintains a neat parallelism between the two, both men heedlessly sublimating their disappointments in pursuit of their obsessions. And while Payne struggles to negotiate a society that regards him as only provisionally admissible, Quinlan--the white journalist--finds himself navigating often similarly unfriendly terrain as he tracks down his subject's cohorts, enemies, and lovers. Payne was "hooked on discovery, on release from the quotidian, on flying free," we learn, but Fuller, admirably, keeps his hero from lapsing into cliché. There's a smoky intrigue to this book, a pleasure in discovering the psychic sources of one man's art. --Ben Guterson

From the Publisher:

"Fuller's (Fragments) unflinching and searing novel tells it like never before. . . . Fuller, one-time editor and publisher of the Chicago Tribune, also wrote jazz criticism for the newspaper and his command of the scene, from Chicago to Harlem, is as evident as Payne's rejection of the diatonic scale. Fuller depicts Payne's demons and guardian angels, his desperation and inspiration, with pathos, compassion and seamy, reckless truths that will pull readers into his musical world."
-- Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"Jack Fuller's The Best of Jackson Payne is, quite simply, one of the best novels I've ever read. In an ensemble of voices as sweet and smooth as jazz, he reveals lasting truths about America, music, race, addiction, the process of art, and the oneness of things. Fuller has long been one of our finest novelists and yet has been too often overlooked. Pay attention now: He has written an American classic."
-- Robert Olen Butler, winner of the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

"Jack Fuller's writing about jazz is the most vivid and inspired that I've encountered in fiction. I was also deeply impressed by the book's own 'jazz' -- its multitude of voices, and the seamless progression of the arguments and answers they exchange about the concerns that define Jackson Payne -- music and passion and race. Slowly and fatefully this novel surrounds and finally beautifully captures an enigmatic life."
-- Scott Turow

"Full of wit and grit and sizzle, Jack Fuller's latest book is a trilling blend of murder mystery, musicology, and Americana. The Best of Jackson Payne is a jazz chronicle of a death foretold."
-- Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

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