Monday, April 13, 2015

Rookery Blues

Lately I’ve been rereading Rookery Blues, a wonderful book by the late Jon Hassler whose works often center on small-town life in Minnesota.  Hassler was a careful writer of beautiful phrasing and lively dialogue.  His characters were carefully drawn, and he imbued each and every one of them with grand frailties that gave them life.

Rookery Blues is one of his most memorable works. To quote Amazon (because it’s easier than coming up with my own summary), “Rookery State College in the late 1960s is an academic backwater if ever there was one--until the Icejam Quintet is born. With Leland Edwards on piano, Neil Novotny on clarinet, Victor Dash on drums, and Connor on bass, the group comes together with the help of its muse, the lovely Peggy Benoit, who plays saxophone and sings. But soon isolated Rookery State will be touched by the great discontent sweeping the country: the first labor union in the college's history comes noisily to campus. As a teachers strike takes shape, the five musicians must struggle with their loyalties--to the school, the town, their families, and one another.”

So, not the stuff of high adventure. The book move slowly, like the blues played by its musicians, one of whom, the clarinet-blowing Neil Novotny, is working on his first novel. Novotny is a lousy college professor—uninterested in his students, arrogant, obsessed, and willing to give easy A’s to students who simply show up for his class. He’s unlikeable from the start and does not grow on you.

The first time I read Rookery Blues some ten years ago, I developed an excessive dislike for Novotny. He is beautifully drawn as simpering and clueless, and Hassler imbued him with all the clichéd shortcomings of a failed artist. He lives in the opposite of a garret—a dank rented basement whose upstairs neighbors, construction workers, have little use for the late night clattering of his typewriter and threaten him with bodily harm. The plot of Novotny’s book constantly bogs down and its characters are one-dimensional. Yet he stays up at night, an insomniac working out descriptive bits. Should his heroine say “Hi,” or “Hello,” or perhaps nothing at all? Should she lose her right or left shoe as she escapes, Eliza-like, from the clutches of the bad guy? Does the snow cover like a blanket? A shroud? A  mantle? A veil?

Here’s my point. I know a lot of writers. None of them are tortured souls. Mostly, they’d like to be able to write and a make a living at it, but the majority does not because it’s not feast or famine, it’s famine or worst famine. They write because they love writing, it feeds their souls if not their stomachs. Not one has ever confessed to pacing the floor at three in the morning trying to figure out how snow covers stuff.  And, being a writer, I can apply that to myself. There are many reasons to stay up worrying—in my case health, money, a sputtering 30-year-old car, and a failing furnace—but few reasons have ever had to do with a character I created, or the cul-de-sac I wrote myself into.

And so I wonder, why did Hassler create such a formulaic personality? Was it a private joke? Was he describing his early self? Or was he simply satirizing the starving-artist stereotype?

No matter. I highly recommend Hassler’s work. He wrote almost a dozen novels, all ultimately satisfying and you could do a lot worse than spend an hour or two with his people in a small Minnesota town.  


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