'Jackson Payne' -- race, love, drugs, jazz

June 11, 2000|By Chris Kridler | By Chris Kridler,Special to the Sun

"The Best of Jackson Payne," by Jack Fuller. Alfred A. Knopf. 321 pages. $25.

What's more problematic than a white biographer writing about a black jazz legend? Perhaps a white novelist writing about a white biographer writing about a black jazz legend.

"The Best of Jackson Payne" manages to take this source of discomfort and turn it into an asset. This tension drives the novel, almost more than the book's intriguing dissection of the life of this fictional man.

Jack Fuller, who manages to find time to be president of Tribune Publishing Co. while he's writing novels, begins with words from James Baldwin: "... by means of what the white man imagines the black man to be, the black man is enabled to know who the white man is."

In this way, Fuller shows us he knows what readers are going to ask: How dare he delve into the soul of what began as an African-American art form? But because so many characters ask the same thing about the white biographer in the book, Charles Quinlan, the black-and-white issue takes on shades of gray.

The Jackson Payne of the title is a tenor-sax man whose recordings and transformation over the years are Quinlan's obsession. For a biography, Quinlan excavates the past through old recordings and old acquaintances.

One might call the book "Citizen Payne," as similar in structure as it is to "Citizen Kane." Unlike the "Rosebud" of that movie, there's no one great secret Quinlan is trying to discover -- except, perhaps, the way and wherefore of Payne's death. But the flashbacks and jumpy narratives are reminiscent of Orson Welles' film.

If anything, it's harder to keep track of who's talking, as a reader must rely on speech patterns and contextual references as we read Quinlan's interviews. Occasionally, it's impossible. The structure, though, keeps the book interesting, though the documentary tone of the tale tends to strip away its emotional content.

That said, the story is involving. We begin to understand the pain of Payne as he grows up with religion, learns music from a man who also betrays him, fights in the Korean War, gets hooked on drugs, goes through women like Kleenex, learns about familial love and screws up his life, always while pushing the limits of his art.

His art is the only consistently important thing in his life. It's also the most difficult thing for the fictional biographer (and Fuller) to explicate.

In the end, the portrait of Payne is not complete, but that's part of the point. How can we gaze into genius and dissect it? We rarely hear Payne speak for himself; this is a fictional study based on gossip, first-person accounts, detective work and old tape recordings.

The novel's aim seems to be to immerse us in Payne's world more than in his head. Jazz is the thread that runs through everything, from war to racism to love. The characters are vivid and believable.

In the end, the book makes me want to hear Jackson Payne play, in all his fire, dissonance and melancholy -- even if he is fictional. That lingering sense of longing is the most worthy accomplishment of "The Best of Jackson Payne."

Chris Kridler is the technology editor for Florida Today. Her work has appeared in Newsweek, Premiere, The Sun, The Maryland Poetry Review and other publications.

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