“It was raining cats and jazz.” From its first sentence, readers will know that Jazz Moon was written by a lover of words and music–someone who hears the music in the vowels, consonants and syllables of language and can weave them into poetry. Ben, the protagonist of Joe Okonkwo’s Jazz Moon has one constant love and that is poetry. It saves him again and again.
Ben Marcus Charles writes poetry in the mornings before heading off to his work as a waiter at a downtown hotel. His wife, Angeline, fixes hair. They love each other, perhaps not with the passion she might hope for, but enough to be happy enough, except for this thing that haunts Ben. And what is this thing? Ben is attracted to men. His first love was a man and one night, while he and Angeline are out enjoying the night life in Jazz Age Harlem they meet a man who brings up all those long-buried desires and dreams.
This is Ben’s story, of his search for love and for happiness though Ben thought that “happiness was more aspiration than destination.” He follows his love, the jazz trumpeter Baby Back Johnson, to Paris where “they love us over there,” as Baby Back assures him. And they do, with a fetishizing paternalism that is exemplified by the welcoming ship’s captain on their way to Paris who says, “The European must embrace the primitive sensuality that comes naturally to the African. That is essential to reinvigorating a white race that is becoming, quite frankly, boring.” Of course, fetishization is another facet of racism, but compared to lynchings and Jim Crow, it feels like love.
Ben’s life in Paris and his search for love are complicated by ambition, jealousy, success and failure. He finds friends, lovers, and a home in Paris, but can he find what he needs?
Paris is a powerful presence in Jazz Moon and Okonkwo describes it in dizzying detail as “a painter’s palette streaked with colors: brilliant, moody, audacious, tantalizing, inviting, alienating. Reds and blacks and pinks and that milky gray that belonged both to the Paris sky and the pearls entwining a rich socialite’s neck.” It makes the cover art so perfect for this book. There’s a chapter where Ben is feeling the colors of Paris that is alight with wonder. I read it twice, just for its beautiful prose.
Jazz Moon can break your heart. There is a poem that Ben writes that can tear you apart with its pain. I very much enjoyed this novel though people who take offense at explicit sexuality, particularly explicit gay sexuality will be unhappy. For the rest of us, it’s a lovely novel of love and self-discovery. There are a few times when it verge toward melodrama, when we are just too far in Ben’s head when he’s wallowing and he does wallow. He is the kind of character that you just want to wake up, but that’s the point of the story, isn’t it, the slow awakening of Ben Marcus Charles.
Jazz Moon will be released May 31st by Kensington Books.
I was provided an e-galley by the publisher via NetGalley