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For years the "great American novel" has been the great unattainable of our native cultural scene. Periodically Hemingway of Steinbeck or another of the leading story-tellers contrives something that looks like it to the publisher, but Clifton Fadiman and the other gentlemen who seem to have the last word in the matter can always find something missing--that last straw of greatness which would break down their resistance and start the dancing in the literary lanes and book fairs of the nation. But though "Grapes" and "Bell" both came close to forcing reluctant admissions of their right to the fabulous title, on both occasions the book reviewers made notable goal line stands to keep the slate clean and sustain the hopes of countless knights of the pen that they would be the first to reach the end zone of literary immortality.
In the more limited field to which these weekly lines are dedicated within the last few years it has been wondered if perhaps such a thing as a great America jazz novel might be forthcoming one of these days--a book which combined some stylistic artistry with the distinctive spirit and flavor of a jazz performance. Two or three novels with such a background have appeared, but none transcends the faint-praise-damning level of competency. So far all such novels have concentrated on merely the life of the musician somewhat to the exclusion of the music which makes that life what it is.
"Send Me Down," the latest glorification of the jazzman to appear, has the advantage of being written by a former musician, Henry Steig, so that its account of the ups and downs in the profession are based on experience. But to the layman he never reaches the point of making clear the ingredients, the essence, and the peculiarities of the jazz music around which his 400 pages are stacked. The rather naive contrast built up between brother Frank, who lets his jazz be diluted with doses of commercialism when he reaches the citadels of fame and fortune, and brother Pete, who goes on playing the so-called righteous stuff for few sous, loses, much of its force with the uninitiated reader who cannot understand all the differences between popular and hot music. Steig, comprehending these distinctions himself cannot recapture them in print.
For the jazz fan, on the other had, "Send Me Down," though it makes interesting reading, says little about music he doesn't understand himself better than it's explained in the book. Stylistically, Steig simply lucks the gift of a James T. Farrell for hard hitting narrative to keep the story continually absorbing. Then the plot is neither subtle nor even convincing at times: the idea of a boy in a melancholy mood bursting out involuntarily with weird minor chords, from deep down inside him of course, seems rather a lame attempt to show that this lad had the old jazz spirit in him all along.
"Send Me Down," accordingly, leaves either type of potential reader with the impression that something is wanting. As a workmanlike description of the world of the dancebands it is fairly entertaining. But beyond that--no great American jazz novel, this.
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