David Eric Tomlinson

words and stuff

Between the Notes: Joe Milazzo’s “Crepuscule w/Nellie”

Dallas native Joe Milazzo’s new novel Crepuscule w/Nellie is an inspired work of art, a “speculative historical fiction” twenty years in the making, and the book deserves a wider audience than it will get. Titled after the jazz standard of the same name – a song composed by the famously idiosyncratic pianist Thelonious Monk, while his wife Nellie was undergoing treatment for a thyroid disorder – the novel imagines itself into the uncomfortable love and economic triangle existing between Monk, Nellie, and their benefactor, the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter.

The story is, like Monk’s work, unique – strange, dissonant, profane, poetic – and some readers will find its peculiarities difficult to overcome. Stylistic techniques and points of view vary wildly from one scene to the next. Setting and dialogue and characters are introduced with little or no context. Yet these characters are drawn with such empathy that, within just a few pages, we begin to identify with their challenges, and to hope for some sort of resolution.

It seems that Nellie is sick. And her husband Monk, communicating in increasingly clipped snippets not unlike Zen Koans, is an almost helpless musical savant. Focused, it seems, exclusively on his own needs, Monk leans on Nellie for everything. His first words to Nellie are a demand for “Ice cream! … Frozen! Icy novelties! … Icy cream, cream! Icy! … Scream!” But now the Baroness Pannonica, hoping to introduce Monk’s talent to a wider audience, is threatening to wedge herself into the widening spaces between husband and wife.

In distinctive set pieces arranged “like Chinese progressions” on a musical scale – there are diary entries to study, transcripts and letters, cartons of old photographs, film negatives, jam sessions and master tapes galore – we are taken on what feels like a voyeuristic ridealong, witnessing Monk compose his masterpiece. Monk’s marriage, the lifeblood running through his music, has started to buckle under the pressures of celebrity and art, racial politics and commerce, mental illness and intransigence … but not (at least not yet) fortune.

We see a younger Monk wooing a much younger Nellie from the basketball court, his brash aphasic declarations of love at first sight: “I told you. I know. And how. You. You’re the one. Not just a pronouncer. An announcer. The one. To never, ever, never ever, ever to forget. The one. You’re not going. No. To forget my name.” We see this relationship grow, evolving into a heartfelt intimacy, hardening finally to the point where Nellie “won’t be budged … is asking herself what becomes of all when everything is no longer enough?”

These moments of affection are contrasted with Pannonica’s weird, seemingly misplaced fixation on Monk and his music. Planning to host Monk at her estate for a public performance, the Baroness and her jealous manservant Frank spend much of the novel at war with one another, volleying insults as they prepare for the event. Unlike Monk and Nellie, who are living Monk’s music, Pannonica’s appreciation for jazz is entirely intellectual. And her public behavior – icily polite, and yet relatively stable – veers so wildly from her diary’s creepy internal monologues that she becomes something of a villain.

We meet the wonderfully tragicomic John Coltrane who, intimidated by Monk’s brilliance, steals every scene in which he appears: “If he was ever going to get himself unstuck, John had decided, he needed a vice … If he was ever going to play Monk’s music, really play it, not play himself playing Monk’s music, play more than coincidence, the coincidences, a lazy mean, heckling his playing, an addiction to anecdote, if he was ever going to make it, really make it, John figured he needed to trade in his cozy captivity for new and eager cruelty … By a quarter of one that same day, John was an alcoholic.”

In the novel’s second act we begin to get catharsis. Difficult conversations are had, distances are bridged, inconsistencies are resolved (some of them, including the riddle of Pannonica’s diary entries, ingeniously). And in a thrillingly acidic confrontation between Nellie and Pannonica, we finally realize that: “Suddenly T.S. is quite beside the point. This discussion is now confined to two women, alone, and that means it is a very, very different discussion altogether. One that is without formulas.”

In Monk’s music, silence can be more revealing than the notes themselves. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the one perspective Milazzo avoids writing from is Thelonious Monk’s. Monk is the novel’s arrhythmic heartbeat, its “one wrong note, or one note given over to a wrong objective, one note that alights heavily when it might allow itself to spring back,” and we understand the enigmatic composer only insofar as we understand his effect upon those who loved him from the shadows.

Especially Nellie, who resolves, in the end, to persevere: “It was worth it, Monk. We have to live as though we know it will be worth it.”


Reading at The Wild Detectives Bookstore (Dallas)

Above+All+Men+Official+Front+CoverDavid and local Dallas writer Matt Bondurant will both be reading alongside debut novelist Eric Shonkwiler in support of his book tour promoting Above All Men. Copies of Above All Men will be available for purchase, and Shonkwiler will be signing.

Bookstore has a café that serves coffee, espresso, baked goods, pastries, and cheese plates, and a bar with local drafts, bottled beer, and Spanish wines for purchase.

Free and open to the public.

These songs served as inspiration for my first novel, “The Midnight Man.” I’d listen to them while writing, jogging, driving in the car, whatever. Listen up, there’s some powerful stuff here.

Also, Doug’s great interview on NPR about this new collection.

“Genius is the recovery of childhood at will.”
– Arthur Rimbaud

A Post-Graduate DIY MFA Reading List

Several years ago I quit my job and started writing a novel. Since then, I’ve spent a good chunk of every weekday reading, writing and thinking about that story. To stay focused, I put together a reading list and wrote brief reviews of those books.

Though it took twice as long as I thought it would – and I ended up reading twice as many books – my first novel is now complete. The reading list was so integral to my development as an author that I wanted to do it all over again. Below is the list I’ll tackle as I start writing the next book … a sort of post-graduate do-it-yourself MFA reading list:

  1. The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner
  2. The Recognitions by William Gaddis
  3. The Woman Who Lost Her Soul by Bob Shacochis
  4. Swimming in the Volcano by Bob Shacochis
  5. The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson
  6. The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers
  7. The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño
  8. The Shadow of the Shadow by Paco Ignacio Taibo II
  9. Returning as Shadows by Paco Ignacio Taibo II
  10. Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
  11. The Sinaloa Story by Barry Gifford
  12. The Barbarian Nurseries by Héctor Tobar
  13. At Night We Walk in Circles by Daniel Alarcon
  14. The City and the City by China Miéville
  15. Truth Like the Sun by Jim Lynch
  16. Querencia by Stephen Bodio
  17. Provinces of Night by William Gay
  18. Damascus Gate by Robert Stone
  19. In The Shadow of Young Girls in Flower by Marcel Proust
  20. Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson
  21. Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta
  22. Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts
  23. The Slynx by Tatyana Tolstaya
  24. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  25. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
  26. No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy
  27. Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru
  28. The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt
  29. C by Tom McCarthy
  30. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
  31. The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald
  32. Personae by Sergio de la Pava
  33. The Deadly Percheron by John Franklin Bardin
  34. A Feast of Snakes by Harry Crews
  35. The Day of the Locust by Nathaniel West
  36. The Big Clock by Kenneth Fearing
  37. The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver
  38. Nightmare Alley by William Lindsey Gresham
  39. A Scanner Darkly by Phillip K. Dick
  40. Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler
  41. The Body Artist by Don DeLillo
  42. The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene
  43. Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra
  44. Atonement by Ian McEwan
  45. Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
  46. Double Indemnity by James M. Cain
  47. Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald
  48. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
  49. Room by Emma Donoghue
  50. Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden
  51. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
  52. The Mexico City Reader by Rubén Gallo
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