Reviewed by Raquel Thorne
Short Story Collection
Print: 236 pages
Publisher: Holland House Books (2014)
Available for $13.07 in print or $5.99 Kindle on Amazon
It’s refreshing to pick up a short story collection that has such purpose. Unlike many single author collections, Guilford-Blake’s tells five separate stories centering on the heart and soul of American Blues. Set respectively in 1977, 1957, 1943, 2010, and 1962, these five stories comprise a spectrum of what it means to be American, to play the blues, and to carry the blues. As Guilford-Blake writes in “Sonny’s Blues,” these stories detail the “dying dream of ecstasy like the living dream of love.”
Starting on a low, somber note, “Sonny’s Blues” details the life of an aging jazz saxophone player in 1977 struggling to make a living long after the end of the era. Sonny Curtis struggles with blues he feels as a deep pain in his gut. While neither the cause of his physical blues and the ending of this story are unexpected, Guilford-Blake’s brief and lyrical treatment of Sonny’s situation make for an enjoyable, if not revelatory, read.
Immediately following are two more socially charged pieces. “Tio’s Blues” (1957) is an uncomfortable, but not off-putting, story of a mentally disabled trumpet player who is sexually abused by his idolized younger brother, Matt. When Tio meets Kerk, an average girl intrigued by his blues playing, what begins as Tio’s sexual renaissance quickly unravels. While longer than “Sonny’s Blues,” “Tio’s Blues’” quicker pacing is well placed. “Nighthawks” (1943) again slows the reading, and nods heavily to Guilford-Blake’s playwright background, relying primarily on dialogue. A simple story taking place in a dinner during a rainy night, four strangers are forced to confront racial tensions.
“Animation,” set in 2010, is a more comedic blues story about a middle aged divorcee named Aggie who was laid off due to the recession. A bit on the pudgy side, Aggie is determined after months of interviews to get in shape. He joins a gym, obtains a Rogaine prescription, and swears off cigarettes to turn around his life. Things don’t quite work out as planned. Personally, this is my favorite story of the collection.
Most of American Blues is male driven; however, Guilford-Blake satisfies the need for strong female, if not healthy, roles in his final story in which love proves to be anything but easy. Jazz, junk, loneliness – “The Easy Lovin’ Blues” (1962) is the most complex story of the collection, and with a tie-in to “Tio’s Blues.” A smart way to end the collection.
Although not terribly original, American Blues‘ nod towards gritty noir mixed with a more lyrical voice, works well. American Blues is a good read for those who love dialogue driven short stories, period pieces, blues moodiness, or new takes on noir. Not a good fit for readers who prefer fast paced action, quirky characters, or novelty plot lines.
Evan Guilford-Blake writes prose, plays and poetry for adults and children. His work has appeared in some 40 print and online journals, and several anthologies; his prose has won 21 contests. Noir(ish), his first novel, was published by Penguin. Holland House recently issued his short story collection American Blues. His plays have been produced internationally. Collectively, they’ve won 42 playwriting competitions. Thirty-one are published. He and his wife (and inspiration) Roxanna, a healthcare writer and jewelry designer, live in the southeastern US. Find more here.