Sue Miller The Novelist Got Me Thinking: Uh-Oh!

Who am I? Deep inside, I mean. For that matter, who are any of us? Man, those are questions I don’t think about too much. They make my head spin. You wouldn’t think they would, though, considering that my college major was psychology, some of whose branches attempt to help humans find answers to such concerns. I liked my psychology courses, and did pretty well grade-wise in them, but I guess that psychology and I never clicked meaningfully enough. We didn’t waltz together as a loving couple. At no time, then, did I see a psychology-based future for myself in my crystal ball. In fact, sad to say, when I gazed deeply into that glass hunk I didn’t notice any future career at all. Alas, with college degree in hand following graduation in 1969, I trod a long and winding road halfway to nowheresville, scrambling with little sense of direction to find steady employment and a decent-paying job.  Oy vey summed up my situation and prospects nicely.

Thank the baccalaureate gods above, the ship began to right itself a number of years later, the proverbial pieces starting to fit together. And in the end pretty much everything worked out quite attractively for me. But looking back on it all from five decades later, maybe I’d have found steady employment and a decent-paying job a whole lot sooner had I been more attuned to examining and answering the foreboding question, “Who am I?”. Not to mention another question, to which we’ll turn our attention shortly, that wasn’t at all on my radar screen in those days of yore.

In any event, here I am today, rolling “Who am I?” and its like around in my brain because of a novel I snatched off the shelf in a local library a few Fridays ago. Not paying attention to the hour of the day, I arrived at the library only 10 minutes before closing time. I realized this when the lights began to flicker, a signal to pack up and get out of Dodge.

Determined not to leave empty-handed I moved quickly down the fiction section’s M aisle, which is where I was standing when the lights started doing their thing. My eyes darted here and there and landed on books by various Millers. Should I try something by Andrew Miller, whom I never heard of but whose volumes were emitting vibes that appeared to be meshing happily with my own? Or one of Henry Miller’s opuses, HM being a hip and bawdy cat I’ve plenty dug over the years? Nah, I wanted a female author. In the intellectual, not the carnal sense. Which is why I grabbed a few of the novels by Sue Miller off the shelf and scanned the synopses on their inside covers. I knew of Sue, she of the bestselling The Good Mother and The Senator’s Wife, and made my decision pronto. Home I went with The Lake Shore Limited sitting beside me in the car.

Sometimes you win, sometimes you don’t. In this case I won, because The Lake Shore Limited is a fine, fine book. If you are in search of a handsomely-wrought creation whose characters act and talk and think believably, it might be for you.

The Lake Shore Limited not only is the name of Sue Miller’s novel, it also is the title of a play set within the novel. What’s more, it is a real-life passenger train that connects Chicago with several cities in the northeastern United States. The play, which is seen through the eyes of various characters in the book, is the novel’s fulcrum. Its powers cause them, including the play’s author, to take good, hard looks at themselves and in some cases at those in their immediate orbits. All find within the play circumstances that resonate with or parallel their own lives.

Wilhelmina “Billy” Gertz, the novel’s main character, is a playwright living in Boston when the book opens. The year is 2007. Her latest product, The Lake Shore Limited, is in performance at a small Boston theater. And gaining strong reviews. Billy felt compelled to write the play, which she battled with for years trying to discover what she really wanted to say, because her once-boyfriend Gus had perished in one of the planes that demolished the World Trade Center on 9/11. Billy’s play tells a tale of an emotionally-numb man, Gabriel, waiting for Elizabeth, his wife, to return from a trip. She is travelling on The Lake Shore Limited. For many a moon, he and Elizabeth have not exactly been the happy couple. In no real sense are they together.

But life can change fast. The Limited has been targeted by terrorists, bombs ripping through it as it reaches Chicago’s Union Station. Gabriel’s soul-plumbing, while he waits to learn of his wife’s fate, reveal him to be more alive than he or the play’s audience expected.

Moving back and forth in time, Miller lays out the lives, past and present, of Billy, Leslie (Gus’s sister), Rafe (who portrays Gabriel in the play), and Sam (Leslie’s friend and Billy’s pursuer). We view events and encounters through their differing perspectives. And we learn that each character often isn’t too certain of the solidity of his or her perspective to begin with.

Which, to me, sounds like the way things are in real life. That’s one reason I enjoyed The Lake Shore Limited as much as I did. Its players come across as true flesh and blood. Miller’s novel also is layered delicately and precisely, which makes it rich. And ripe for discussion. Care and concern, unbridled love, grief, selfishness, infidelity, deception . . . these primo examples of the human stew are on full display in the novel. Maestro-like, Miller elegantly weaves these themes and emotions through her pages.

Not to downplay those just-mentioned examples, two of the things that have stuck in my mind like glue about The Lake Shore Limited even more are the “Who am I?” question and another question with which it goes hand-in-hand. Miller doesn’t dwell on them, but I felt them running as undercurrents in her novel. Billy, for instance, thinks of herself as a semi-loner. And, I believe, she knows that not only is it her insecurities that lead her in the loner direction, but that trying to overcome them by adopting a less-defensive approach to life might result in a jump in her happiness quotient.

And Sam, a successful architect, can only feel bad about how he failed pretty considerably as a parent when his children were young. They, now well into adulthood, and he don’t have world-class relationships. “Who the heck am I?” I can envision Sam asking. “What do I need to do to change my course?”

Billy and Sam . . . I can relate. We homo sapiens are emotional and malleable creatures, open to improvement and expansion, and vulnerable to blows. Yes, “Who am I?” is a biggie as questions go. But even if you find the answers to it, you’re not going to bloom enough if you don’t get around to examining, and acting upon, “What sort of person do I want to be?” too.

(If you enjoyed this article, then don’t be shy about sharing it or about adding your comments. Thanks.)

Advertisements

Killer Joe: The Song That Gave Me Pause

You know, I’m not exactly the poster boy for being cool. I mean, the last time that a hot chick couldn’t keep her eyes off of me was . . . was . . . was . . . yeah, now I remember. I was about two years old, being pushed around in a baby carriage. “Oh, he’s absolutely adorable,” the girl cooed, bending down to get a better look and never taking her gaze from mine. Wow, that was the best!

But I’ll tell you something. I do know how to be cool once in awhile. Like when I hear a great tune on the radio, one so finger-snapping and head-bopping fine that I can’t contain myself. Just watch me as I rise from the sofa and strut across the living room, the dining room, the kitchen and back again. Fingers snapping. Head a-bopping. Cool, man, cool. It happens now and then.

Killer Joe. That’s the tune that got me off the couch one recent evening. As usual I was doing not much of anything, except half-listening to the radio and counting the number of Cheez-Its crumbs stuck to the sofa’s cushions. I had counted 87 of them when — POW! POW! — Quincy Jones’ version of Killer Joe came on the air. It sounded spectacular. Next thing I knew, I was stepping.

killerjoebenny the-jazztet-featuring-art-farmer-and-benny-golson-killer-joe-argo
Killer Joe, a jazz standard, was composed around 1959 by jazz saxophonist Benny Golson, who has written many other songs (I Remember Clifford, Whisper Not, Stablemates) covered by scads of jazzbos. And Benny’s 1960 recording of Killer Joe is absolutely ace (click here to listen). Benny put the tune on wax with The Jazztet, the group that he co-led with trumpeter Art Farmer, and it came out on their album Meet The Jazztet. But Quincy’s KJ is better. It’s just too, too much, though it took me awhile to settle permanently into that opinion (click here to listen). I like it more than The Jazztet’s version because it has more slinky sizzle. Quincy himself didn’t play on the tune, which is from his 1969 album Walking In Space. But he arranged and conducted it and hired some monster guys to send out the sounds. Ray Brown (bass), Hubert Laws (flute) and Grady Tate (drums), to name a few.

To me, Ray Brown’s confident, strutting upright bass is the key to Killer Joe. From the opening bass lines straight through to the song’s end, Ray Brown is walking the walk. He’s under control, yet swaggering. He’s keeping things tight and tense, but jaunty too. And Tate, his steady high-hat cymbal work somehow loose as a goose, ambles arm-in-arm with Brown. Beyond the purring Brown/Tate engine, I couldn’t get enough of the airy flute solo, the piercing trumpet interludes and the pleading voices of the female chorus. Man, my fingers were snapping big time as I did my household shuffle.

KillerJoeQuincyR-2139078-1368881598-7835_jpeg
It wasn’t till the next day, though, relistening to the song on YouTube, that I paid attention to the lyrics that the ladies sing. “Killer Joe, don’t you go/Hurt me slow, please Joe.” Whoa, what did that mean? Is this a song about physical abuse? Had I been slow-marching and bopping to a composition that contains a really nasty notion? It took me a good long while to grasp the meaning of the words. They don’t paint a pretty picture, but I believe that the hurt referred to is emotional, not physical. Killer Joe (the character, not the song) is a cad, a heel, a self-absorbed jivester whom some women just can’t resist. Smitten, they know it’s a certainty that he will leave them. And that their hearts face a sad destiny: to be broken. The ladies want to be let down easy, not hard.

Now, The Jazztet’s recorded version of KJ basically is an instrumental piece. It has no lyrics, though Benny Golson felt the need to open the proceedings with a spoken introduction to let the world know that KJ ain’t a swell guy. Nine years later, on Quincy’s version, lyrics, brief as they are, were added. Who wrote them? I’ve scoured the Web, coming up unsure as to the answer. Could have been Golson, could have been Jones, could have been both or neither of them. Regardless, Quincy’s 1969 take on the song expanded Golson’s equation. What had been an instrumental description of a me-first, ponies-playing ladies’ man became deeper, something to ponder. Quincy Jones’ Killer Joe is a swinging statement tempered with reminders about how doleful and strange and complicated life can be.

Speaking from my me-first perspective, it’s a good thing that Quincy’s KJ isn’t about women who like their bad boy to whup them. If it were, into the deep freeze it would go, never to be listened to again. I’d be a chump to support any tune that goes that far to the dark side, even if it grooves like a champ.

But all is well in my music world. Onward!

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments, or about sharing this article with others)