Monday, March 18, 2013

Intermission by Owen Martell

In 1961 Bill Evans of the Bill Evans Trio dropped out of the New York jazz scene. His disappearance was provoked by the tragic death in an auto accident of double bass player Scott LaFaro. Grief-stricken, Evans retreated into the bosom of his family, staying first with his brother Harry in New York and then his parents Harry Snr and Mary in Florida. Owen Martell's Intermission is an attempt to fictionalise this grim career pause.

Those hoping for a lowlife trawl through a jazz underworld of smoky joints and late-night dives will be disappointed. None of the cliches that we associate with that milieu are in evidence here. Although Evans was a heroin and cocaine user his addiction is not a central theme. Aside from a spectral journey to score some drugs most of the 'action' takes place within the domestic sphere. This novel is as much about familial relationships as it is about jazz per se.

Despite their good intentions brother, mother and father struggle to connect with the distraught pianist as they tip-toe around his grief. Everywhere there is distance and lacunae. His brother trails him but doesn't intervene as he slips out to score heroin. His mother watches him sleep, wanting but not daring to touch. As a consequence there is almost no dialogue in this novel. The only character who manages to bridge the divide is infant niece Debby whose direct approach yields, at least, a tactile squeeze on the nose from uncle Bill.

Martell employs interior monologues to build up a picture of Evans and outline the complex ties that bind him to individual family members. Harry, Harry Snr and Mary all reach back to childhood in an attempt to make some sense of their relationship with him. What we find is sibling rivalry and unresolved Oedipal impulses. We witness, for instance, Harry Snr turning into Competitive Dad as soon as he steps onto the golf course with Bill. Martell's interiorizing approach also heightens the sense of alterity - the sheer otherness of other people.

Evans' isolation takes on almost symbolic form in his reluctance to play the piano. After the fluid communication and musical interplay of life in a jazz trio he now barely troubles the keyboards. Yet there is still music in these pages. We learn that his (Russian) mother is a devotee off Stravinsky and that his (Welsh) father enjoys bar-room sing-a-longs. Jazzier touches can be found in the chapter headings; and in Martell's occasional tendency toward introspective abstraction. It takes its most obvious form in the way that family members interpret and riff on their memories of Bill - like members of a jazz combo passing a musical theme from player to player.

Despite providing the coda for this book Bill Evans remains an enigmatic figure throughout. For the most part he is viewed at a remove - even the interior monologues are conveyed in the third and not the first person. Often he is a shadowy, nocturnal presence, variously portrayed as a ghost, vampire and deathbed occupant. And in the many images of stillness, a man trapped in trauma-induced purgatory. The death theme, of course, arises from the LaFaro tragedy but also points forward to the suicide of his brother and his own drug-addled demise.

You don't have to be a jazzer to enjoy Intermission. The writing is sharp, as are the psychological insights. An engagement with death and grief might suggest a gloomy read but Evans emerges from his hiatus ready to reengage with the creative process and resume what would still become a legendary career in the history of jazz. As for Owen Martell he has succeeded in the tricky task of fictionalising an absence and fulfilling the instruction set down in his chosen Miles Davis epigraph: Don't play what's there, play what's not there.

*Intermission by Owen Martell is published by William Heinemann and is on sale now. Martell's other novels are Cadw dy Fydd, Brawd and Dyn yr Eiliad.