The Boston Phoenix
April 29 - May 6, 1999

[Book Reviews]

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Trumpet by Jackie Kay

Pantheon Books, 278 pages, $23.

Jackie Kay In the hands of a less graceful writer, Jackie Kay's Trumpet would have been a polemic about gender with a dollop of race thrown in for good measure. But Kay has taken the most tabloid topic possible and produced something at once more surprising and more subtle: a rumination on the nature of love and the endurance of a family.

Be warned before reading on: I can't describe Kay's success without revealing a major early plot point. In a reverse Crying Game of sorts, the death of famed jazz trumpeter Joss Moody leads to the revelation that he was a she. The forward motion of the novel is split between the reactions of two family members: Millie, the widow who knew, and Colman, the son who didn't.

It is achievement enough for a first novel to capture two such dissimilar voices well. Millie's voice is contemplative and sad ("There is nothing behind or in front of me: just me and the wind and the sea"); Colman's is angry, given to casual epithet ("The children of famous people aren't allowed to be talentless, ordinary fuckwits like me"). Though their grief is shared, their voices are perfectly distinct.

But rather than be content with these two, Kay adds other perspectives: old friends, the housekeeper, a funeral director, and a doctor (among others). Each voice has its particular clarity, yet every one adds to the same insistent mantra: surprise, surprise, but wasn't he quite a fella after all? This works best in a chapter titled "The Funeral Director," which is a tour de force of character, plot, and theme. It is this mortician who provides a perfect epigram: "The dead are so demanding. The dead are larger than life."

The only false note in all this is Kay's least likable creation: Sophie Stones, a tabloid-style writer. She is rendered as a flat villain, a cardboard shrew unethically plying Colman with liquor and flirtation, when she's not scheming or shopping. "The confessions of a Colman Moody are the goods, the blood, the entrails. I can't help myself." She's so unredeemed that even she's aware she's the bad guy.

But I can forgive the novel this blemish when there is such beauty around it. The centerpiece of the narrative is a five-page chapter from the point of view of Joss, who's ready to cross over to the afterlife. The literary equivalent of jazz, the language rises and falls, repeating a theme and then seemingly abandoning it before returning to pick up the thread. "He is the music. The blood dreaming. The long slow ache. All the light is in the music -- soaring, flying."

The novel itself contains all that -- dreaming, aching, and soaring. It makes grief potent without melodrama and redemption credible without preaching. Trumpet plays like a sad old song that makes you cry -- but one you hope will never end.

-- David Valdes Greenwood

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