All eyes are on Esi Edugyan. Nominated for last week’s Man Booker Prize, she’s also neck and neck with fellow novelist Patrick deWitt on three other literary awards this season – including the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and its hefty $25,000 pot. The accolades are for the Victoria writer’s second novel, Half-Blood Blues, which tells the story of Afro-German jazz musician Hieronymus Falk and his arrest in Nazi-occupied Paris. In this excerpt, Hiero reflects on the restless, imperfect, marvellous process of cutting a record.
This is the first in a series of excerpts from the five novels nominated for the 2011 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. Watch for more excerpts every day this week from Edugyan’s competitors on the Writers’ Trust short list: Clark Blaise, Michael Christie, Dan Vyleta and, yes, Patrick deWitt. The winner will be announced Nov. 1.
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Chip told us not to go out. Said, don’t you boys tempt the devil. But it been one brawl of a night, I tell you, all of us still reeling from the rot – rot was cheap, see, the drink of French peasants, but it stayed like nails in you gut. Didn’t even look right, all mossy and black in the bottle. Like drinking swamp water.
See, we lay exhausted in the flat, sheets nailed over the windows. The sunrise so fierce it seeped through the gaps, dropped like cloth on our skin. Couple hours before, we was playing in some back-alley studio, trying to cut a record. A grim little room, more like a closet of ghosts than any joint for music, the cracked heaters lisping steam, empty bottles rolling all over the warped floor. Our cigarettes glowed like small holes in the dark, and that’s how I known we wasn’t buzzing, Hiero’s smoke not moving or nothing. The cig just sitting there in his mouth like he couldn’t hear his way clear. Everyone pacing about, listening between takes to the scrabble of rats in the wall. Restless as hell. Could be we wasn’t so rotten, but I at least felt off. Too nervous, too crazed, too busy watching the door. Forget the rot. Forget the studio’s seclusion. Nothing tore me out of myself. Take after take, I’d play sweating to the end of it only to have Hiero scratch the damn disc, tossing it in the trash.
“Just a damn braid of mistakes,” Hiero kept muttering. “A damn braid of mistakes.”
“We sound like royalty – after the mob got done with em,” said Chip.
Coleman and I ain’t said nothing, our heads hanging tiredly.
But Hiero, wiping his horn with a blacked-up handkerchief, he turn and give Chip a look of pure spite. “Yeah, but, hell. Even at our worst we genius.”
Did that ever stun me, him saying this. For weeks the kid been going on and on about how dreadful we sound. He kept snatching up the discs, scratching the lacquer with a pocket knife, wrecking them. Yelling how there wasn’t nothing there. But there was something. Some seed of twisted beauty.
I didn’t mean to. But somehow when the kid turned his back I was sliding off my vest, taking the last disc – still delicate, the grooves still new – and folding the fabric round it. I glanced around, nervous, then tucked it into my bass case. The others was packing up their axes.
“Where’s that last record at?” said Hiero, frowning. He peered at the trash bin, at the damaged discs all in there.
“It’s in there, buck,” I said. “You didn’t want it, did you?”
He give me a sour look. “Ain’t no damn point. We ain’t never goin get this right.”
“What you sayin, kid?” said Chip, slurring his words. “You sayin we should give it up?”
The kid just shrugged.
We lined up the empty bottles along the wall, locked up real quiet, gone our separate routes back to Delilah’s flat. Curfew was on and Paris was grim, all clotted shadows and stale air. I made my quiet way along the alleys, dreading the sound of footsteps, till we met up again at the flat. Everyone but Coleman, of course, Coleman who was staying with his lady. We collapsed onto dirty couches under blackout curtains.
I’d set my axe against the wall and it was like I could feel the damn disc just sitting in there, still warm. I felt its presence so intensely it seemed strange the others ain’t sensed it too. Its wax holding all that heat like a altar candle.
Excerpt from Half-Blood Blues © 2011 by Esi Edugyan. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Allen Publishers.
Esi Edugyan reads at Toronto’s International Festival of Authors, Oct. 29 and 30 ( www.readings.org).