Before I decide to buy a book, I open it up to five different pages spread throughout the contents. If the author's style doesn't grab me, the tome resumes its position in the rack. If it does please, then I try three more spots. When it passes that test, I buy it. That, however, is my criterion for non-fiction, I'm even harder on fiction. The masters—Dickens, Fielding, Voltaire, Shakespeare, etc.—were wondrous adepts at playing with words while modern novelists are, for the most part, just playing with "themselves", and so I tend to avoid today's wordsmiths like the plague. There are, however, modern marvels (Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun quartet remains one of my life's most mind-blowing experiences [seriously!], and Jack Vance never fails to please immensely—I've read my entire library of his fantasy books, 50+ if my count is correct, seven times over the last few decades), but such singularities are few and far between.
This is why, when I wrote arts and political columns under that yammering moron Rob Kall over at OpEdNews.com, I reviewed maybe four books total. I think Outside In is only my second for FAME (Editor Dave is as leery of the appropriateness of book overviews in the venue as I am), but, because it passed The Test, it intrigued me. That Nat Hentoff and Ira Gitler dug the volume was what caused me to even consider a critique at all, but The Test revealed an almost hallucinatorily Dalinian frame of mind at work as well. Hard to pass that by.
The premise of Outside In is a chronicling of the jazz life, its highs, its lows, its weird personalities, its demons and angels, sages and prophets, exhilarating interludes and deep funks, all the stuff the pinkboy norms, the workaday Joes, never get to experience, never even dream about unless the TV happens to first put it in front of eyes somehow. Pages 29-30, one of the second set of read-throughs I invoked, for instance, lay out a conflict between protagonist Shawn the sax player and a hard-nosed bandleader stepping all over his improv toes as a madman looks on menacingly from the audience. Pages 92-93 set forth an engagement tableau twixt Shawn and his paramour, Irene, as Jimmy, a painter caught between multiple dimensions, tries to convince him of the metaphysical impossibility of his connubial plans, hoping to persuade his friend to favor women from other planets.
Pages 212-213 extol an interlude with the ectoplasmic appearance of a manifestation that may or may not be Cannonball Adderly and centers on the life and death cruciality of exactly the right mouthpiece for a horn player, a scenario in which the self-conjured spirit manneredly torments Shawn, trying to force him out of a wavering fragmenting mindset torn in choosing between dedication to his art and the woman he loves. If you think I'll tell you how that ends, you're out of your mind. I don't do that sort of thing. In fact, I'm still hunting for the guy who revealed the ending to the movie The Mechanic—the first one, the one with Charles Bronson—thus ruining the flick for me back in the 70s. When I finally catch him, the gravesite is already waiting.
What I will say, though, is that the bulk of Outside In is largely conversational, the accompanying narrative serving as understructure, a rhythm section sketching out the environs, and thus reading the novel is like watching a TV series. Scott Schachter, the author, is a professional musician, a saxophonist who has played in the orchestra pits on Broadway for a very long time through an impressive 70 shows (Pippin, Chicago, A Chorus Line, 42nd Street, etc.). He's also performed beside, as the book's reverse commentary notes, "some of the most talented performers in the world—among them, some of the most neurotic", and they all carouse and wackaloon their way through his book, metaphorically and otherwise.
As you follow the perhaps-not-quite-fictional Shawn through frequently surreal peregrinations, you'll acquire a firsthand look at what a musician's working life is really like and how it affects the Everyman polarizations tugging him this way and that as he tries to be an artist and a normal human being simultaneously. I can't guess how that might actually be accomplished on planet Earth, but this yarn goes a goodly distance in approximating, and you'll likely find yourself among the roster of characters. The only question, then, will be whether you exhilarate or disturb yourself in that discovery.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2014, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
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