Clifford's Blues


Fiction. In his newest of twelve novels, John A. Williams presents the story of a black, gay jazz musician imprisoned in Dachau who manages to survive by working as the band leader of a group of prisoners who play at a nearby club for SS officers. If there is an undiscovered aspect of the black experience, it will be found by Williams. John A. Williams proves again that he is the greatest American novelist of the twentieth century — Ishmael Reed.

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Fiction. In his newest of twelve novels, John A. Williams presents the story of a black, gay jazz musician imprisoned in Dachau who manages to survive by working as the band leader of a group of prisoners who play at a nearby club for SS officers. If there is an undiscovered aspect of the black experience, it will be found by Williams. John A. Williams proves again that he is the greatest American novelist of the twentieth century — Ishmael Reed.

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Editorial Reviews

Priscilla R. Ramsey
In Clifford Blues, Williams manages to achieve an extraordinary number of really humorous moments, and he is exquisitely skilled with an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz and jazz history, which he constantly weaves into the story's plot and development. William's language is always richley endowed with imagery that crystallizes meaning. In the end this novel is a complete joy.
American Review
John Leonard
His novelistic skills...are formidable.
NY Times Book Review
Washington Post
John A. Williams is writer of great evocative power. His style...Comes from the gut.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Inspired by a little known fact about WWII, Williams (Captain Blackman) creates a chillingly lifelike account of the treatment of black people by the Nazis. In the parlance of the time, Williams's protagonist refers to himself as a gay Negro; he's a jazz pianist in 1930s Berlin who runs afoul of the ascendant Nazis and is imprisoned for 12 years in Dachau. "My name's Clifford Pepperidge and I am in trouble," the narrator announces on May 28, 1933, in the first page of his diary, which ends inconclusively on April 28, 1945, as the Americans liberate Dachau. Clifford's journal is framed by letters dated 1986 that trace how the diary was passed along and eventually published. Embroiled in a sexual scandal with a wealthy American embassy attache, the New Orleans-born Clifford is effectively stripped of his identity and accused of "immorality to the state." At Dachau, he encounters SS officer Dieter Lange, who once haunted the same jazz and gay clubs as Clifford, and now becomes his protector and lover, using him as a "calfactor" or houseboy, and gaining prominence among the other SS for throwing parties at which Clifford plays the piano. The diary is filled with harrowingly authentic details about the workings of the camp: the ranking among the prisoners by colored triangles, the bargaining for food and sex, the brutality of the guards and increasingly horrific conditions. While Clifford's own situation is relatively privileged , he often compares the treatment of the other prisoners he observes to slavery in America. Williams's ear for black dialect--especially musical references--is superb and his knowledge of jazz impressive. Where the early entries lag with the long overture toward war, the later ones increase in tension as Hitler's aggression unravels. Clifford emerges as a naif, often willfully ignorant but never cruel; his diary, though fictional, is an eloquent testimony to the largely unknown sufferings of blacks--not only African-Americans but "colored men" from all countries--who were incarcerated in WWII concentration camps. (Mar.)
Philip Patrick
...[A] difficult and important — if imperfect — work...that calls to mind [the] question..."What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon?"....In exploring the Holocaust through the eyes of a black American, Williams has written a novel that indeed chases after ghosts that haunt our own land.
Hungry Mind Review
Paul Pickerel
Williams is a writer of considerable gifts, and if he can do as well with his first attempt as he has done in Night Song, he should be a novelist to watch.
Kirkus Reviews
A first novel by journalist Williams (If I Stop I'll Die: The Comedy and Tragedy of Richard Pryor, 1991), portraying the travails of a black musician imprisoned in Dachau. Prison camps have hardly been places, conventionally, to catch up with one's diary. Here, though, the solitude, boredom, and seemingly endless stretches of they time serve to make our central character quite introspective indeed, even though this person is the gregarious and feckless as Clifford Pepperidge. A gay pianist from New Orleans, Cliff made the scene in Harlem in the 1920s, playing alongside the likes of Ellington, Ma Rainey, and Miss Bessie Smith. When a Russian impresario decides to take a jazz band on tour through Europe, Cliff jumps on board and eventually winds up in Berlin, where he becomes one of the stars of the cabaret years of Weimar. Arrested during one of the Gestapo's periodic roundups of gays, Cliff is taken (in spite of his US citizenship) into "Protective Custody" and sent to Dachau. Upon arrival, he's recognized by Dieter Lange, a gay SS officer with a secret passion for jazz who used to frequent Cliff's nightclubs. Dieter makes Cliff his calfactor (houseboy) and gets him special treatment in exchange for sex and music (all the other Nazis apparently love jazz as much as Dieter, and Cliff helps Dieter win favor with the brass by playing at parties for them). And since Dieter's young wife Anna is (not surprisingly) far from satisfied by her husband, it soon becomes part of Cliff's duties to take care of her as well. How much degradation is enough for a man? Cliff has no illusions: "Good men who are strong don't last here." But if you want to make it, you can put up with just aboutanything-and Cliff's diary shows how he does just that. A worthwhile variation on a grim and lamentably familiar story. The tone veers toward the disconcertingly light, but, even so, things remain a long way from Hogan's Heroes. .
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781566890809
  • Publisher: Coffee House Press
  • Publication date: 4/1/1999
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Saturday, November 11, 1939

Dieter Lange came up behind me this morning while I was cleaning the house before going to the canteen. Anna had gone shopping in Munich to get some new clothes because of that weight she's lost. Instead of looking like an elephant, she looks like a baby elephant. "They almost got him!" Dieter Lange whispered, as though someone was hiding in the house. "Almost got him!"

"Got who? Who's they?"

His eyes were bright and he was all up in my face like when he's drunk and he whispers, "Wie steht es?"

How about it? "Hitler! They almost got Hitler, with a bomb in Munich, Thursday night!"

I snapped the dust out of my cloth. To me a miss was as good as a mile. I didn't know what all the fuss was about. "But who did it?"

"Some Red carpenter in Munich. They got him."

"But who else? You said they?"

"Just him, as far as I've heard. But it shows that people don't want war and they want to be rid of Hitler. So, maybe the next time they'll get him, eh? And maybe that's not too far off." He walked around the room, his hands behind his back. "You know, I'd let you go, if we got out of this mess. I'd give you the money to get back home. I really would, Cleef."

"I'd sure appreciate that," I said, but it wouldn't happen. He knew it and I knew it. White people fulla shit, especially when they run a place like Dachau. He stopped walking right in front of me and held my dusting hand. "What's the matter with you, Cleef?" He gave me a close look, as though he might find something in my face that he'd missed before. "You've been . . . nicht heir for over a month now. Are you sick?"

I looked at him. I didn't know what he was talking about. I said, "What do you mean?" He raised his arms and moved them slowly up and down like he was a bird on the wind. "You just flott machen all the time, maybe like you had some cocaine?"

I released my hand and went back to dusting. He watched me and said, "Achtsam, Cleef, bitte, Achtsam," then he went upstairs to his office.

When I finished, I shouted to him that I was going to the canteen and left. I didn't wait for him to answer.

It was another Armistice Day, ha-ha-ha, to celebrate the war to end all wars, except the one that just began. Ta-ta, da-da, de-dum. . . ."Hey, Sunshine!!"

I stopped and turned around. I'd passed through the Jourhaus gate. Sgt. Rekse, his Schaferhund straining at his leash, was shouting. I didn't know why.

"What do you do, why do you skip like a little kid? Are you nuts, Pepperidge? You want to wind up in the Hartheim wagon like those other niggers went out of here this morning?" Skipping? I was skipping? I whipped off my cap. "No, sir."

"I'll tell your mother on you!" he roared, laughing, rolling back on his heels. He rubbed my head for good luck. The shepherd he'd brought to heel snapped his head from me to Rekse and back again, its tongue hanging out. Would Rekse never forget that visit by Ruby Mae? "Get going, Pepperidge, and get those marbles out of your head. They're glass, you know, and can be broken."

I thanked him and replaced my cap and walked quickly away, up the west-side path, into the stiff, cold wind. I lowered my chin to protect my throat even though the sun was shining. But, would Pierre be gone? Would he have been one of those "niggers" on the wagon ride to Hartheim? We used to gather on this side of the camp to hear Hitler's speeches, which were broadcast over the loudspeakers hooked up across the moat on the ss side. The moat is outside the wall on this side of the camp. Now there are walls with the electric fences on the top. I could see the rooftops of the factories, hear the banging and clanging of work going on inside them, the hum and screech of machinery. I was almost never on this side, but I could wonder now at just how much the prisoners had done since I first came. Down at the end of the camp, the sun was reflecting off the glass of the new greenhouse. Oh, Pierre. A group of prisoners pulled a wagon loaded with the dead from the Reviers and the morgue. Then I was at the northwest corner where the small north road bisects the smaller west path, where the gates lead to the inferno the dead don't feel. Or if they do, they can't say so. The greenhouse stood before me; to its right was the garden, then a space where rabbits were raised, for ss Hasenpfeffer and for Luftwaffe pilots' jackets. Then the disinfection hut where Pierre worked. Above all this was the north watchtower with its sliding glass windows, its machine gun and the guard with his rifle. I stood there with my pass at the ready to show any guard, and watched the prisoners wheeling barrows of rich, black dirt from a huge pile into the greenhouse. The prisoners were all white, untouched by that soft, golden color that was Pierre's. My stomach began a slow, cold slide downward. I moved forward a few steps. Maybe the sun was shining too brightly, or the cutting wind was doing something to my eyesight. "Oh, Pierre," I whispered to myself. I looked at the pile of earth, then saw a shovel and a pair of blackened hands, disembodied parts, moving in a slow steady rhythm, filling a barrow. I walked to where I could see who the shoveler was. It was Pierre. He saw me and winked and smiled. I smiled back and felt the wind sharper on my face where it met the tears. I waved and turned away toward the 'Strasse. Why were my footsteps heavier than before? Would Pierre be in the next group to Hartheim? Would it be easier for me if he was, or even if he'd gone this morning? There would be no more "Suppose," no more worry. It would be over and done with. I felt I was walling up something inside me that no one could touch or reach from now on, that no one could hurt. Dieter Lange could be in me, but not in that place; Pierre could "Suppose" me, but never again would he be able to touch that place, because it was my sanctuary, my church, the grove where Loa Aizan, forever watchful, rested.

I skipped up the 'Strasse humming. In answer to the smiles, the circles drawn on the sides of the heads, I muttered, "Fuck you. Fuck you."

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 31, 2001

    Music for the soul

    This book captures human nature and sings its truth in the voice of Clifford. The author has to be thanked for the many chords he plays on our hearts as we read this testiment.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 14, 1999

    And Then There's the Other....

    This book is a great reminder that the Death Camps were comprised of a large cross-section of humanity. It also serves as a reminder that in order for any man to hold you down in the mud, he must be in the mud with you also. In this novel, Morality, or the sense of it that the 'enlightened' western world has defined for centuries, was really shown for what it truly is: If you're in power, you define and contol the laws and morals. Stunning piece of work.

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