Jeffrey Keeten's Reviews > Bluestone Rondo

Bluestone Rondo by Walker Smith
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it was amazing
bookshelves: historical-fiction, music, african-american

”He had always heard that a light complexion was supposed to be the most valuable asset a colored person could possess, but Joe hated the term ‘light, bright, and damn near white.’ The hard truth about being light-skinned was that ‘damn near’ was still damn far. He had seen too many damn nears laboring their lives away, just like his father and all the other darker Negroes in the cotton fields.”

In the beginning, there are two brothers.

They are brothers, like Romulus and Remus and Cain and Abel, and their story, like the tragic consequences of those other brothers, is not about the blood that binds them, but those insidious, sneaking thieves of reason, jealousy, and envy.

One brother is light, and the other is dark. Joe is so gifted with song that you could believe that Artemis has taken the ability of both brothers and fused it into one. Calvin Jr., missing that song in his heart, is left with seething self-loathing and vengeful anger that curls his fingers into fists. It is a story as old as the world, told here with musical accompaniment...jazz.

Joe has a Betty Grable picture over his bed, and Calvin has a picture of Lena Horne. Betty Grable’s bathing suit pinup is the most popular photo of World War Two. That is what all those American lads went to war to fight for. They dreamed of coming home, and a Grable surrogate was going to be serving them beer in an Angora sweater and poodle skirt, while the fried chicken sizzles and pops in a cast iron skillet on the stove. Calvin can’t even dream about Betty Grable, but Joe, with his light complexion, believes that there is no dream he can’t make into reality. It is interesting to me that Calvin chooses Lena Horne, as if he is still trying to possess that song that is missing from his life.

Joe Bailey dies, and Joe Bluestone, the crooning jazz singer, emerges. Calvin Bailey often wishes he’d died but lands in prison instead. Two lives that start out in the same womb diverge, but of course, there are more types of jail than the ones with bars. Joe, living as a white man, has to live with the constant fear of exposure that someone will recognize Joe Bailey lurking behind the mask of Bluestone.

Joe hooks up with a jazz band, and that is when Doc Calhoun and his wife Pearl enter his life, but at the same time, Doc and Pearl enter our lives as well. Doc and the band are trying to help Joe see beyond the words and notes. ”Junior, I’m gonna tell you this one more time: Jazz tells stories, man. Let yourself get lost in one of ‘em. And some night one’a those antiseptic songs you croon is gonna grow a soul.”(Doc calling Joe Junior has more significance than he can even know.)

The band:

”’It’s sex, man.’

‘Sex?’ Joe repeated incredulously.

‘Yeah, baby,’ Reet said. ‘Remember? Musical intercourse. Music is loaded with sex.’

A lewd grin lit up King’s face. ‘Triple tonguing and ticklin’ the ivory, baby.’

Doc caressed his trumpet. ‘Lips on her mouthpiece, and she opens right up to Papa.’”

I’m going to cut this scene short because I’m already rolling a cold water bottle across my forehead and fanning myself with a French copy of Jazz Hot.

Pearl, by her very presence in his life, is teaching Joe about what it means to really love somebody. The relationship between her and Doc is added evidence for me to believe in the concept of soul mates. ”Doc’s smile seemed to draw her to his side, and she pressed herself neatly into his arms like an interlocking piece of a jigsaw puzzle. They spoke in low whispers, laughing and touching, and seemed to generate a heat that Joe could feel from across the room.”

Joe can see, but unfortunately he cannot seem to do. His life is on a trajectory to tragedy. As Joe’s star begins to descend, Calvin’s is rising. Cain is emerging from the wilderness, and redemption is within his grasp.

You can read this story just for the plot and thoroughly enjoy yourself, or you can delve deeper into the story by stopping and reading the letters that Walker Smith has strewn along the road that will guide you through the canyons and down the arroyo to sip at the river of truth. You can certainly say that she is a writer, a novelist, but if you want to be precise, you should say that Walker Smith is a consummate storyteller. The Houston Homer still gifted with (in)sight.

Walker and I played rock, paper, scissors, and she lost so she had to answer some of my burning questions.

 photo Walker Smith Austin Library_zpsqltyty2q.jpg
Look how surprised Walker Smith was to lose at rock, paper, scissors. As you can see from the great answers to my questions she provided that she is a good sport.

Jeffrey D. Keeten: I thought it was interesting that you used the word rondo in your title. Reading through descriptions of rondo, I saw the words digressions, episodes, speed, which are descriptive terms that really do fit the structure of the novel. I always think of rondo in association with Mozart and Bach pieces. Jazz is like a second skin wrapped around the plot of your novel. I’ve never really thought about rondo in regard to jazz, but of course, the music reflects its usage. What inspired you to connect rondo with your novel?

Walker Smith: Rondo: I knew the term “rondo” had to be in the title because of the music and the circular connotation. The precise definition is: “from rondeau, meaning round; a musical form with a recurring theme that often repeats in the final movement.” I write historical novels, which is a sort of circling back in time, and all my novels are presented in a circular format, not linear.

I started with one simple plot: a racial Cain and Abel story set to modern jazz. There is usually an occurrence early in my novels that is always revisited at the end, because life is filled with circles. Read the first text line of Chapter 1: “Calvin Bailey was singing again.” Then read the last line of the book. Neither Calvin, Sr. nor Calvin, Jr. could sing well, and they both lived harsh lives, but somehow found their respective songs. In the beginning, Calvin, Sr. is driving his family along the edge of the River. (Note: The River is the symbol of God in the novel’s Mississippi River Valley as Eden motif; this is why the word River is always capitalized in the novel). At the end, Calvin, Jr. circles back in his memories, all the way back to the River as the song A Change is Gonna Come plays on the radio. I did not have the permission to reprint the lyrics of that song, but the first line is: “I was born by the river – in a little tent – and just like that river, I’ve been running ever since…” Both times, the River was in the scene. I was sort of glad the lyrics weren’t there. Without hitting the reader over the head with it, the rondo has played. And perhaps it might encourage readers to download Sam Cooke’s rendition of that song.

Race has been the most divisive issue in American history, and Cain and Abel always seemed so appropriate to show the folly of that division. At first, I was just going to show it through a white boy and a black boy, but then I hit on the idea of making them true blood brothers, which makes their mutual hatred even more absurd; their only difference is pigmentation. And mismatched siblings, even twins, are a much more commonplace occurrence in black families than you might expect. That also dovetailed beautifully with my jazz theme, because of the juxtaposition of harmony against the caustic division of the races symbolized by Joe and Calvin. The harmony was so easy to depict because I had seen it growing up in my household. Daddy was a jazz drummer, and the jam sessions described in the book were from my childhood memories. White, Mexican, Jewish, Black, Cuban – you name it, they were all at our house like a United Nations of bebop! As my friend Jack Gibson used to say: “Jazz was the first great integrator.”

The opening gun scene is visited twice more in the book – after Joe’s tragic odyssey as a white man, and then relayed by Calvin near the end. Each retelling provides a new piece of information about what actually happened in that room. This is structurally the “recurring theme that often repeats in the final movement” and establishes the musical world of the novel. The radio is also a key musical element that establishes itself as an anthropomorphic villain in many scenes.

Music is all through the book, not only in the obvious elements of several characters being musicians, but also in the rhythm and tempo, the rises and falls of conversation. Example: when Joe is asking his bandmates how they know when to come in for their solos when “trading fours and eights.” Their entire conversation was written as a fun little musical segment of trading fours and eights as spoken conversation. If the reader doesn’t get it, it doesn’t matter. It still shows how much fun these guys are having in their adoration of jazz. Also, I don’t know one human being who doesn’t have a virtual soundtrack to his or her life. A song plays, a grin spreads across a face, a memory of a high-school dance, a broken heart, a wedding day, a lover that got away. Bluestone Rondo has its own soundtrack.

Bluestone: The story is filled with divisions, duality, splits, discord, and separations. This theme is reflected in the Cain and Abel twins, the overtone of the country’s racial divide, the ruptures created by McCarthyism and the Red Scare, references to the Mason-Dixon line, but mainly the divisions inside the psyches of each character. The aquamarine cuff links given to Joe by the girlfriend he stole from Calvin were an obvious bit of symbolism. Split during the pivotal fight at “the crossroads,” Joe’s link is a good luck charm that inspires his assumed name – Bluestone. For Calvin, the link becomes a symbol of doom as a piece of evidence that convicts him of murder. The title itself is a subtle hint of duality, as well as a tribute to Dave Brubeck’s iconic Blue Rondo a’ la Turk. Known for its radical switches in time signature from 9/8 to 4/4 and back again, it jerks the listener from a feeling of mania to laid-back cool, then back to mania, then back to cool again. It was perfectly emblematic of the story, and I just couldn’t resist the similarity. (It was also my father’s favorite piece to play.)

And that’s how the title became Bluestone Rondo. (Sorry for the long-winded answer! OMG!!)

JDK: Pearl was the most fascinating character in the book for me. She was the gorgeous Nefertiti, exuding sultry charm and gracing all those around her with her soul deep empathy. Her soaring voice evoked an inner tremble in people, but that talent was being hidden away under the weight of her tragic heroin addiction. “The Hydra was making love to her, moving with the skill of an experienced lover, and exploding like a separate climax in each nerve of her body. When she felt him hit that spot ‘down low’ again and again and again, she remembered screaming and then seeing herself smiling like a trick....” She has this great love story with her husband Doc Calhoun, but no amount of love from him or for him can compete with the need she had for heroin. Hey, Sugah (as Pearl would say), talk to us about the process of her creation in your mind?

 photo Walker Smith Atlanta BN_zpswhuhxqni.jpg
Walker Smith at the Atlanta Barnes and Noble.

WS: For me, characters sort of form themselves. I began Pearl with physical traits and mannerisms of my own mother, whose name was Pearl. The deep, unrushed contralto voice, the chain-smoking, the love of books, the ultra-cool look and demeanor. The Pearl of my story and her husband Doc serve as the “bridge” to the song that is Bluestone Rondo. So I knew they had to be memorable, despite being secondary characters. They are both composites of people and ideas, but Pearl is more complex – a paradox of heroin addiction, wisdom, and pure love, which is the symbolic meaning of a pearl. I wanted readers to love her, to root for her, not to judge her for her failings. As she began to take shape, I realized that she had a teetering quality that made me want to reach out to keep her from falling. I knew that if I felt that way, the readers would, too. But the clearer she became, the more she began to rebel. She showed herself to me in memories of all the strong women I had known in my life, who had struggled and failed, only to rise up and keep going. Pearl then became the unlikely pillar of strength that held those two families together, while fighting the pull of the Hydra. I stepped back and gazed at her from a distance. She was whole when I realized that I loved her. She possessed a stately grace smack in the middle of her “damn mean world.”

JDK: I love the fact that you infused the novel with the history of the era. You have the McCarthyism of the 1950s. You have the famous Berlin, Germany, Kennedy speech that lit a fire in the civil rights movement. You have the cascade of assassinations from JFK in 1963, Malcolm X in 1965, and then as if the left wasn’t getting the message MLK and RFK within a matter of months of each other in 1968. Vietnam is not just a background noise for your characters but a very real part of their lives. Talk a bit about the process of infusing history into the novel and the influence the history had on the direction of your story?

WS: My first novel, The Color Line, was set during World War I and the Harlem Renaissance. I decided to dig for the most unknown history I could find, then place my characters there to live it. My goal was to dust off the feeling of history to give it the tension and immediacy of current events as seen through their eyes. I was going for a virtual ride in a time machine. Other writers have done it, of course; I’m certainly not the first, but I love it, despite all the hard work.

JDK: I am, to put it mildly, a jazz and blues devotee, and so I was excited about reading your “jazz novel.” I was not surprised to realize how well versed you are with the shakers and movers who contributed to this innovative sound. You even dropped a new jazz pianist on me that I’ve never heard play before... Horace Silver. Tell us a bit about your relationship with jazz and where your interest in this music comes from?

WS: From the womb! My father was a constantly working jazz drummer, and my mother was a literary geek with a beatnik coffee-house cool. They met in a jazz nightclub where he was playing. She was not a singer like the Pearl of my novel, but to quote my father, “She walked into the club right in the middle of a set, and man, I nearly dropped both my sticks! Then when I heard her talk, she just knocked me on my ass.” I ended up being their love child, born about six months after they got married. I had the coolest parents on earth! It was jam sessions in the living room, jazz and classical records on the hi-fi, and Mama’s books. I knew it was either going to be music or literature for me, but it ended up being both. When I was eighteen, I left home, drove to Los Angeles, and started gigging and doing background sessions. Somehow, I was in the right place at the right time and ended up being signed to the Casablanca label. But writing was still my passion. Singing was just something I could DO. Writing was something that demanded hard work, anger, frustration, self-criticism, passion, and fidelity. It had to be the love of my life, nothing less. I took creative writing courses at LACC and kept reading all the classics. Three albums later, I was done with the music business, and it was done with me! I headed for New York, and that’s when I really began to write. Between working a day job and editing for two local magazines, I began researching my first novel. In longhand. On the floor of my unfurnished apartment. No social life whatsoever. FIDELITY, baby! I had never been happier in my life!

JDK: With the turbulent relationship between the two brothers, Joe and Calvin Bailey, there is certainly the overtones of Cain and Abel. For me, what I really appreciated about the arc of your story is that my sympathies swung heavily in one direction, but then with time, my sympathies swung to the other brother. Both brothers have a tough path, but one steadily becomes a better version of himself, while the other flounders and drowns in his own lies. We tend to judge people by their worst traits or by the worst moments in their lives, but you really did a great job of showing the redeeming qualities of your flawed characters. It puts muscle on the bone. Can you talk a bit about your philosophy of redemption and how it played such a role in your novel?
WS: Your shifting sympathies are the result of the internal duality inside each brother. They were both Cain, and they were both Abel. Perhaps that’s what the Bible story was telling us all. And in that recognition lies our redemption.

JDK: Tell us about your writing process. Do you write in the morning, the afternoon, the middle of the night? Do you write every day? Do you have a consistent schedule? How long does it generally take you to write a novel?

WS: My writing process is wild, unreasonable impulse controlled (somewhat) by a solid foundation. I have great respect for the principles of good writing, and I value great literature. Structure, symbolism, arc, rhythm, tension, character development, settings, etc. I’ve been told that I’m pretty good with dialogue. I’ve lived in many different regions, and I’m drawn to dialects. I fall in love with people and embrace their diversity. A soon as someone begins to talk, I turn on my mental tape recorder and my internal video camera. Speech inflections, laughter, a lifted eyebrow, a hand gesture. Committed to memory, locked in the vault for future reference. I do not start with outlines, only a time frame and a region. Then I begin to write visual scenes. Some occur early, others are ending scenes. I always write my ending very early in the process, and then all the scenes that will take me to that end. My timeline shifts and changes all over the place, and I do a lot of moving things around, switching the order of chapters, etc. I am ruthless with my editing. I overwrite to begin with, writing all sorts of detail that I know I will throw out later, but it gives me a deep knowledge of people and events that is essential to me as the writer, but will probably bore the reader. So, once I finish the long version, I start hacking away. I’ll read an entire chapter and grin at myself: “Lovely prose, Walker. You sound very pleased with yourself in a pompous, overwritten sort of way. Bye! Delete, delete, delete!” It gets my ego out of the clouds. There are plenty of others out there who can write circles around me! I have to keep telling myself, “Just tell a story; this ain’t Cirque de Soleil!” (Note: I promise you that “Cirque” was an inadvertent pun, but I’m leaving it in for no good reason.)

See the rest of the interview continue in the comments.
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Reading Progress

May 22, 2019 – Started Reading
May 22, 2019 – Shelved
May 22, 2019 – Shelved as: historical-fiction
May 22, 2019 – Shelved as: music
June 24, 2019 – Finished Reading
September 20, 2019 – Shelved as: african-american

Comments Showing 1-21 of 21 (21 new)

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message 1: by Jeffrey (last edited Jun 29, 2019 05:54AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jeffrey Keeten As to the time spent, my first novel, The Color Line, took ten years of research, rewrites, rejections, more rewrites, more rejections, and more research before it was finally published. But every year was a pleasure, believe it or not. The main story of Bluestone Rondo took less than a year, but during the editing and rewriting phase, Hurricane Katrina hit. (We lived in New Orleans at the time.) To speed this up, I’ll give you the rough cut of what followed: Evacuation, relocation to Houston, death of my baby brother, death of my mother, death of my father. I’m not kidding. All separate events, within the span of two years. I could not write at all during this time, especially not Bluestone Rondo, which was written for my parents. Thank God they had the chance to read some of the manuscript before they were both taken from me. They are the people on the dedication page:
“For the drummer and his lady – two sleepy people who once lived and loved in a city of glass.”

The drummer was Daddy; the lady was Mama; Two Sleepy People (by Hoagy Carmichael) was “their song” when they dated; Stan Kenton’s City of Glass was Daddy’s favorite avant garde jazz record. They were not exactly Doc and Pearl, but they shared plenty of personality traits. They were just as flawed in their ways as we all are, and they had plenty of people who threw stones at them, despite living in their own glass houses. So… city of glass.
When I finally came out of that horrible no-writing funk, getting back to Bluestone Rondo was a surprising catharsis, and I finished it in under a year. Then I played the waiting game until the 2014 release.

Letters from Rome took less than a year to write. That one was a departure for me, a fun romp into déjà vu land. I LOVE the concept of time travel and the fantasy (or reality) of having lived before in another time. It was also my funniest novel. (I think…)
The Weight of a Pearl came from readers who demanded more about Doc and Pearl, which made me very happy. I had never intended to write a sequel to Bluestone Rondo, or anything else about Doc and Pearl. I felt that their story had been told. Then it occurred to me that when they first appeared in Bluestone Rondo they were already in the middle of their lives, married with children and dealing with heavy issues before Doc even meets Joe. Perhaps I could do a “prequel” and tell the story of their development, childhood, the war, how they met and fell in love, issues in their personal lives that had only been touched on in Bluestone Rondo. I began to get excited by the possibilities. That book took about a year and a half to complete.

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JDK: Tell us what you are working on now and how soon we can see a new novel from you?

WS: My current novel begins in New Orleans on August 29, 2005, the day Hurricane Katrina struck. Something happens on that day that takes the reader back to the 1960s, focusing on two generations of the Leone family, half-black and half-Italian. The history they live through includes the volatile 1960s, with a special emphasis on 1968, one of the bloodiest years in our history. Human rights, union organizing, the Cold War, the Stonewall Riots. One of the main characters is drafted, so I’ve been spending a lot of time in Vietnam (research-wise) these past few months. I’ve been reading books by veterans, as well as talking with a few who actually opened up to me about their experiences. Rare! I’ve been privileged to look into the eyes of history more than a few times. One treasured memory of mine is sitting at a kitchen table in Los Angeles listening to a very old Jewish woman who had survived the Holocaust. She cried as she told me about her youngest son being shot dead in the street as she and her other son were pushed onto a train. I could see it all in her eyes. I was there. It was so real to me I didn’t even realize that I was crying, too. When she finished, she rolled up the sleeve of her sweater to show me the tattoo on her arm. She told me to touch it, to touch the numbers. This woman who had suffered so much was sharing the painful history she had lived with me. This was remembrance.

And this is why I write historical novels. Because of rondo.

Jeffrey Keeten Thanks Violet!

message 3: by Tomasz Wasik (new)

Tomasz Wasik Good review, looking forward to your next one!

Jeffrey Keeten Thanks Tomasz!

Walker Smith Thanks so much for that great review, Jeffrey! Of all the reviews written on my books, yours contained an amazing amount of detail. When you read, you really read, Brother! You caught all the imagery, the complexity of the characters' relationships, the pathos, and the humor. Put simply, if I hadn't written the book, that review would have made me want to read it! Thanks again!

~ Walker Smith

Walker Smith Thanks so much for that great review, Jeffrey! Of all the reviews written on my books, yours contained an amazing amount of detail. When you read, you really read, Brother! You caught all the imagery, the complexity of the characters' relationships, the pathos, and the humor. Put simply, if I hadn't written the book, that review would have made me want to read it! Thanks again!

~ Walker Smith

Jeffrey Keeten Walker wrote: "Thanks so much for that great review, Jeffrey! Of all the reviews written on my books, yours contained an amazing amount of detail. When you read, you really read, Brother! You caught all the image..."

You're most welcome Walker! I'm so glad you liked the review. I can't write an inspired review without being inspired by the book, Needless to say your writing inspired my writing. I look forward to reading your other books. Your fiction is more real than real life.

Jeffrey Keeten Thanks Mahamber!

Jeffrey Keeten leslie hamod wrote: "Wonderful review Jeffrey. I truly enjoyed your thoughts on this. The quotations were quite apt. And five stars! 😘"

Thanks Leslie! I think you will really enjoy this author. She's great with dialogue and character development. She knows how to tell a story.

Jeffrey Keeten leslie hamod wrote: "Thankyou Jeffrey. You truly have a story of your own as well. I believe your books are on my list as well."

We all have stories to tell. :-)

message 11: by Mike (new) - added it

Mike Thank the lord you won that game of rock, paper, scissors, Jeffrey, because the result was this absolutely superb review!!!!

Incredible and fantastic series of questions and with even more awe-inspiring answers!!!

This was just a joy to read today.

Jeffrey Keeten Mike wrote: "Thank the lord you won that game of rock, paper, scissors, Jeffrey, because the result was this absolutely superb review!!!!

Incredible and fantastic series of questions and with even more awe-ins..."

Well after a few emails back and forth with Walker I could tell I was going to have to bring my A game not only to Rock, Paper, Scissors, but also to the series of questions. I would have cheated at R,P.S. if I could have figured out how, but I had to rely on Keeten luck instead. I knew if I could figure out how to word the questions correctly that I could inspire Walker to give some amazing answers. She is a font of wonderful information. Frankly I could have asked another series of follow up questions, but alas the review/interview was turning into a monster, a very fine monster indeed. Thanks Mike! I'm glad you got a chance to read this one.

message 13: by Angela M (new)

Angela M Fabulous review!

Jeffrey Keeten Thanks Angela!

message 15: by Caterina (new) - added it

Caterina Absolutely fascinating review and interview!

Jeffrey Keeten Caterina wrote: "Absolutely fascinating review and interview!"

Thank you Caterina! How about those answers by Walker Smith? Priceless!

message 17: by Will (new)

Will Byrnes Outstanding!

Jeffrey Keeten Thanks Will!

message 19: by Caterina (new) - added it

Caterina Oh yes! She went above and beyond—a stellar interviewee! So thoughtful, articulate and generous with her answers.

message 20: by Sachit SR (new)

Sachit SR Sup

Jeffrey Keeten Caterina wrote: "Oh yes! She went above and beyond—a stellar interviewee! So thoughtful, articulate and generous with her answers."

I couldn't wait for her answers and she did not disappoint.

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