Jazz and Twelve O'Clock Tales: New Stories

Overview

Poets who can write prose that equals their poetry are rare. With this collection of thirteen new short stories, Wanda Coleman, Los Angeles's unofficial poet laureate, proves an exception to the rule yet again. Jazz and Twelve O'Clock Tales owes its title to the lyrics of "Lush Life" by Billy Strayhorn, Duke Ellington's right-hand man. Like the heartbroken lover of Strayhorn's song, the characters in these stories lead lonely lives full of longing, of potential stifled by racism, poverty, and absurd accidents of ...
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Overview

Poets who can write prose that equals their poetry are rare. With this collection of thirteen new short stories, Wanda Coleman, Los Angeles's unofficial poet laureate, proves an exception to the rule yet again. Jazz and Twelve O'Clock Tales owes its title to the lyrics of "Lush Life" by Billy Strayhorn, Duke Ellington's right-hand man. Like the heartbroken lover of Strayhorn's song, the characters in these stories lead lonely lives full of longing, of potential stifled by racism, poverty, and absurd accidents of fate. And yet, even though they are trapped by the present moment, their inner lives are lush, a mirror of the city of angels in which they live, a metropolis, "always simmering," as Coleman writes in the final story, "ever waiting to be borne on that balmy promised crescendo."

Coleman applies a poet's economy of words to her fiction, setting a scene with lightning-quick strokes, letting a detail, a dialogue, or the brisk vernacular speak for itself. Or, alternatively, she will step in and take center stage, an omniscient voice seeing beyond the impending and inevitable tragedy, but powerless to change either narrative or outcome. Powerless, that is, only within the bounds of the story, for Coleman is an author devoted to change, personal and political, writing to affect the balance of power in America. "Nothing will satisfy me," she has written, "short of an open society and social parity."
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

The sharpest stories from Coleman, a 2001 National Book Award finalist in poetry for Mercurochrome, provide unsettlingly familiar portraits of lonely people attempting to negotiate difficult, mostly urban lives. Her characters torment each other, yield to socioeconomic pressures, talk wildly at times and never quite fit in. In "My Son, My Son," a cab driver picks up a woman on her way to meet her son at the airport, and the only certainties that can be gleaned from what she says and does are her wealth and her derangement. In "Purgatory," a woman puts herself in prison for reasons that remain ambiguous; the solitude offers her "time to do some deep exploration." Stylized phrasing threatens to carry off stories like "Jazz at Twelve," about a jazz musician who never gets proper recognition, or "Hibernation," a portrayal of a young woman ready for love but unable to find the right partner. "Backcity Transit by Day" is among the more abstractly painterly pieces, until its gruesome end. Coleman offers a set of searching, reflective voices moving from mellifluous to dramatically blunt. (0ct.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

Jazz runs throughout these 13 short stories, and the "twelve o'clock" of the title is probably midnight rather than high noon. Known more as a poet, Coleman has published other collections (Heavy Daughter Blues, 1991) that included short stories. As Gwendolyn Brooks did for Chicago, Coleman roots her stories in a specific place, here the unforgiving sprawl of Los Angeles County. Her characters tread the salty, choppy waters of race, class, and gender, a fitting counterpoint to peer Charles Bukowski. In a scene between counselor and patient, a typical line reads: "I got one of those stupid-ass white women who think they own the world. No street smarts at all." The book opens and closes with two shorter, lyrical pieces-one on destruction, one of rebirth. Coleman never denies her characters their humanity, even amid brutal circumstance-a true, rare gift for readers. Her searing prose carries both the luminous allure of a late-night moon and the limned reflection of a high-noon sun. Recommended for all collections.
—Travis Fristoe

Kirkus Reviews
An award-winning poet (The Riot Inside Me: More Trials and Tremors, 2005, etc.) presents a collection of short fiction. In the first story, "Joy Ride," Coleman demonstrates a poet's feel not just for the meaning of words, but also the sound of words as she describes two young couples on a leisurely trip. The story is brief-not quite three pages long-but dense with emotion and incident. It's also absolutely gruesome, and whether it's a mordantly powerful parable or a well-crafted piece of schlock is open to interpretation. Indeed, opinions about this collection will most likely be divided among those who believe that Coleman deserves literary credit simply for attempting to address matters of race and class-that fiction about serious issues is, by definition, serious fiction-and those who believe that literature should deliver aesthetic pleasure even when it also functions as a social lesson. Certainly, the characters depicted-mostly black, mostly living in Los Angeles in the late-middle of the last century-are circumscribed by racism and poverty, and there is something poignant and horrible in realizing that these hobbled lives lived half a century ago are not all that different from the lives lived by African-Americans today; in that regard, Coleman makes her point. But, beyond that, she doesn't really tell us anything we don't already know. Coleman generally foregoes the lyricism of her opening tale, and the longer entries especially suffer from weak characterization and baroque plots. A melodrama about skin color, class, sex and revenge, "Winona's Choice" is like a condensed Jackie Collins novel thinly incorporating African-American studies. "My Brain's Too Tired to Think" is an uneasymix of pop psychology, feminist theory and talk-show sensationalism. The shorter tales are slightly more successful, and "Darkness"-a taut, terse vignette about violence and its aftermath-is the best. A flawed but not altogether unworthy exploration of race, class and the human condition.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781574232127
  • Publisher: Godine, David R. Publishers, Inc.
  • Publication date: 11/28/2007
  • Pages: 160
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Table of Contents

Joy Ride 1

Butterfly Meat 4

Pepper 7

Jazz at Twelve 11

Winona's Choice 21

Backcity Transit by Day 53

Purgatory 60

Shark Liver Oil 73

My Brain's Too Tired to Think 91

My Son, My Son 123

Darkness 133

Dunny 137

Hibernation 144

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