Post Road Magazine #11

SONNY'S BLUES by James Baldwin

Merrill Feitell

I began recommending this story to people with the assertion that it contains the best description ever written about the experience of listening to live music. Of course I most often made the recommendation while out somewhere actually listening to live music, or while in hot conversation about it, and in either of these cases, the recommendation was made invariably while consuming large quantities of beer. And so, sober the next day and ever neurotic, I would second-guess this heady assertion-

the best description ever written about the experience of listening to live music! -and wonder if it was just the drink talking. Thus began my frequent rereading of "Sonny's Blues," and I'm happy to say, I'm still convinced.

For a story anthologized in such obscure texts as, say, the Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, I'm surprised at how few of my writer friends have actually read it. In brief, "Sonny's Blues" tells the story of two brothers in Harlem in the fifties. The elder is a schoolteacher and family man; the younger, Sonny, is a jazz pianist with a little heroin under his belt. The story sort of stages a debate as to which life holds greater danger and offers greater joy, which life-if either-provides any escape from a history of Harlem suffering. All that conflict is played out in the harrowing, blissful, aching, and celebratory music-playing of the final scene, the scene I'm always going on about.

But in all the rereading, I realized that the music in the story is not contained in the Village jazz club depicted in the last few pages of the story. Music is seeping through the cracks everywhere that story goes- slipping out of barroom doors, whistled across deserted school yards, accompanying death on country roads-it rises in the air all around, both lovely and insidious, like heroin, I imagine, or aging, or any other kind of escape.

And I think it's all of this that makes that musical culmination of the last scene so astounding. In that description of music-you don't even get to hear the music itself!-Baldwin manages to get at the almost involuntary and survivalist act of making art, of the whole blissful and awful struggle being alive and trying to extract something meaningful from it.

God, it's so good-and it's on your shelf somewhere, I'm sure. Go read it! Or read it again.

Also, and otherwise, Julie Hecht's novel The Unprofessionals, about

the profound and unlikely human connection between a fifty-year-old woman and a twenty-one year old boy. The voice is funny in a way I've never read before, and heartbreaking as it may be, I laugh out loud every time I read it. The ultimate endorsement: I've bought it for about ten people-even back when it was hardcover. And every time I finish it, I start at the beginning again. •

Merrill Feitell is the author of the collection Here Beneath Low-Flying Planes (Iowa Short Fiction Winner 2004). Her stories have appeared in many publications, including the Best New American Voices series, and have been short-listed in Best American Short Stories and The O. Henry Awards.

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