Craig Austin reviews Intermission, Wales Book of the Year Award winning author Owen Martell’s latest novel, his first to be published in English rather than Welsh.
There are very few musicians who can ever claim to have played on a truly ground-breaking record. At the age of just 32 and within the short space of just three years, however, a celebrated period latterly referred to as ‘the birth of the cool’, the fêted American jazz pianist and composer, Bill Evans, could rightly claim to have played a pivotal role in two. Having lit up Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, still the best selling jazz record of all time, Evans, the son of Russian and Welsh emigrants later played a series of concerts in Greenwich Village with his own band, The Bill Evans Trio; a historic residency emotively captured on the best-selling album Sunday at the Village Vanguard. The events of this novel, Owen Martell’s third book and his first to be published in English rather than Welsh, detail the subsequent lost months – the ‘intermission’ in Evans’ life – and the crushing burden of grief that is kick-started by the tragic death in a car accident of his treasured and prodigiously talented young double-bassist, Scott LaFaro, only a matters of days after the recording of Vanguard.
As much as the publishers have sought to position this novel as an evocative representation of a hugely influential ‘time and a place’ in downtown Manhattan, an approach reinforced by the redolent, mid-century, Mad Men-esque design of the book’s dust-jacket, Intermission is essentially a story about loss; the loss of purpose, the loss of idealism, and perhaps most of all, the abject disconnect from a once-functioning family unit. Moreover, much of the novel’s key events take place far away from the smoky basement clubs and rehearsal rooms of Seventh Avenue, in the detailed descriptive passages of both the pianist’s childhood New Jersey upbringing and the stiflingly hot Florida Summer of 1961; the location of the retirement home of Evans’ elderly parents to whom he is eventually discharged by his concerned, academic brother, Harry Jr. Martell deconstructs both deeply and skilfully the eternally challenging and often self-destructive relationship of male siblings and their underlying mutual desire for familial superiority in whatever form that might take, at one point observing that ‘it was like they were their own collective noun, a “competition” of brothers’. The episodes in which a grief-stricken Bill succeeds in communicating with his brother and sister-in-law only via the conduit of their three year-old daughter, Debby (later to be immortalised in real-life via The Trio’s ‘Waltz for Debby’) are both heart-warming and excruciating in equal measures, the author’s delicacy and deftness of touch underpinning a descriptive tenderness that slowly builds towards an aggregated power that plays out most effectively in the slow-burn characterisation of Evans’ father Harry, and the desolate revelatory disclosure of the depths to which the musician has succumbed to the poisonous allure of hard drugs.
Evans’ father is painted as a man, if not at war with himself, then certainly as someone whose life has been ultimately suffocated by compromise and regret; a man who views his life journey from Wales to Florida, via Plainfield, New Jersey, as the gradual incremental dilution of his spirit, his sense of self-worth, and any connection he once had to the earthy roots of his mother country. The head of a family he has undoubtedly treated shabbily, and a latter-day barroom belter of lusty Celtic folk standards, he sneers at both the too-perfectly green shade of Floridian grass and the cowardly, selfish ‘Micks’ whom he still blames for failing to usher the 1916 Uprising over the sea to Wales. ‘Don’t give me that Celtic cousins bullshit,’ he spits, before adding wistfully, ‘I was in my prime then, in my twenties. I’d have gone back in a flash’. In conjuring up the overwhelming hiraeth of a burning rebel spirit that has long since petered out, the author draws inevitable parallels with the inner turmoil and heart-rending decline of his celebrated son whose life in the steely grip of drug addiction is first hinted at, and then progressively reinforced. A sickness symptomatic of a pre-Bitches Brew era when the only ‘jazz fusion’ that truly existed was the sadly inextricable link between the music, its players, and – for many – their predilection for heroin.
Tellingly, the reader is permitted only the briefest glimpse of Evans at the keys of his piano, a short-lived and somewhat uncomfortable experience shared with his anxious parents who lie motionless in their bed as their broken son’s muted melody permeates the walls of their home. It’s both a momentary intrusion and a brief instance of respite at the commencement of a series of passages that lead to a bleak denouement in Evans’ lonely apartment upon his eventual return to New York City in which ‘he’ll go to the bedside table, where he keeps the needle and the strap, and all of this will go away’.
In seeking to capture both a pivotal point in time in the life of such a celebrated and ultimately tragic jazz icon, and a period in which hard-nosed commercial pressures eventually saw art give way to pop – a scene in which Evans angrily refuses to pen the liner notes for a post-death, rush-release of Sunday at the Village Vanguard says much about the prevailing cultural agenda of the emerging 1960s – the author walks a precarious, timeworn tightrope that has been the downfall of many lesser writers whose attempts to balance real-life events with creative ingenuity have been crippled with either an absence of legitimacy or a voice that simply doesn’t ring true. Martell succeeds where others have failed as a consequence of the skill in which he crafts this portrait of four people in orbit around a tragedy, of a man lost to both his family and to himself, and the eternally insufferable, but perversely intriguing fate of an inordinately gifted musician ‘obliged to experience life from the outside, like looking through thick plate glass’.
Intermission by Owen Martell is available from Penguin Books.