Shackling Water

Shackling Water

5.0 1
by Adam Mansbach

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At the age of nineteen, saxophone prodigy Latif James-Pearson boards a bus to Manhattan to find his aging idol, the great Albert Van Horn. The centers of Latif’s universe soon become a Harlem boarding house, where he spends his days practicing intensely, and the downtown club where Van Horn's group performs and Latif hides in the shadows, listening. There, he

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At the age of nineteen, saxophone prodigy Latif James-Pearson boards a bus to Manhattan to find his aging idol, the great Albert Van Horn. The centers of Latif’s universe soon become a Harlem boarding house, where he spends his days practicing intensely, and the downtown club where Van Horn's group performs and Latif hides in the shadows, listening. There, he begins a complex affair with an older white painter named Mona, and starts working for Say Brother, a charismatic drug dealer. But as Latif’s frustrations with his playing mount, and the demands of balancing artistry, hustling, and love push him toward crisis, he is forced to confront his music, his past, and himself. A virtuosic story told with lyrical intensity, Shackling Water heralds the arrival of an important new voice in American literature.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A rushing torrent of swirling, coruscating language, jumpy with jazz-influenced rhythms and shimmering with tumbling shards of urban imagery.” –The Boston Globe

“[Mansbach is] a veritable multi-culti code-switching genius. . . . The novel forges ahead to a powerfully humble conclusion that testifies to the authentic impulses behind creation.” –The San Francisco Bay Guardian

“This might be the best fictional work about jazz since James Baldwin’s beautiful and soulful Sonny’s Blues.” –Library Journal

“Pulls you into passages so rhythmic that for the first few pages you want to stop the meaning from leaking through. You want only to say the words out loud, hear the syllables roll off your lips.” –Boston Magazine

“Mansbach displays a gift for fusing the improvised energy of streetspeak with that of spiraling jazz riffs.” –The New York Times Book Review

“Mansbach convincingly captures the rhythms and cadences of black language and the inner monologues that play out while artists are on stage. . . . The questions that [Shackling Water’s] authorship raises–does this white boy know what he’s talking about? –are forgotten.” –The Washington Post

“Mansbach plays with words like a rapper, themes like a jazz musician and rhythm like a hip hop dancer. Some of the most original and moving writing out there.” –Boston Herald

“Mansbach illuminates music's spiritual dimension and plumbs the sorrow and rage that is the legacy of every black artist. [A] bold, resonant, portrait of the artist as a young man. . . . Mansbach's eloquence and energy are unwavering and his music is divine.” –Booklist (starred)

“A literary debut of breathtaking splendor. Mansbach riffs like Coltrane, flows like Biggie Smalls, and heats the page with prose that might have spilled forth had Whitman learned the blues. . . . A true artistic gem.”Michael Eric Dyson, author of Holler If You Hear Me: Searching for Tupac Shakur

“A stunningly beautiful, heart-aching debut . . . a brilliantly written, risk-taking novel that lands gracefully on its feet. . . . Shackling Water may be the finest novel written this year and half of the next one.” –African-American Literature Book Club

“Mansbach sparkles throughout. As auspicious a debut as Colson Whitehead's The Intuitionist . . . even those who don't know a whole note from a grace note will revel in glorious song and history both.” –Kirkus Reviews (starred)

“A passionate debut . . . this promising novel augers well for Mansbach’s future.” –Publishers Weekly

“Language that moves with all the grace and unpredictability of a thrilling solo.” –Jazziz

Publishers Weekly
A talented African-American saxophonist moves from Boston to Harlem to study with the jazz master he idolizes in Mansbach's first novel, a passionate debut that succeeds despite an abundance of plot cliches. Latif Pearson, the young protagonist, gets hooked on the sounds of Albert Van Horn; after years of building his chops, 19-year-old Latif gets up the nerve to make the move to New York, where he spends his nights watching Van Horn play from the sidelines. The dark side of Latif's debut comes when he takes a job running drugs for the local dealer, but he is able to make it work as he adds a relationship to the mix, falling in love with a beautiful white painter named Mona. The ambitious, precocious Latif idolizes Van Horn, but when the older musician finally invites him to some private jam sessions and then onstage, Latif puts so much pressure on himself that he implodes and succumbs to the lures of heroin. Mansbach gets past the hoary plot cliches with some strong characterizations, although his prose waxes purple when he writes about the music and Latif's street life: `The horn dipped and bobbed above the amniotic ocean... vanishing inside the grave of Icarus only to reanimate ichthyoid." Setting aside these flaws, both hardcore and would-be jazz fans will find plenty of meat on the bones of Mansbach's debut; with a more innovative plot, it might have been a truly memorable book. Agent, Richard R. Abate. (Mar.) Forecast: Though a bit dated in theme and likely to appeal mostly to New York readers, this promising novel augurs well for Mansbach's future. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
This might be the best fictional work about jazz since James Baldwin's beautiful and soulful Sonny's Blues. A K nstlerroman (artist's novel), this first novel tells the story of Latif James-Pearson, an aspiring yet often self-doubting young African American, as he moves from Boston to New York to become a professional jazz saxophonist. The first third of the book is a verbal feast, as Mansbach's fiercely textured prose powerfully conveys the New York jazz scene of the 1990s and superbly echoes the rich cadence and rhythm of a fantastic jazz riff. While the novel loses some of its narrative momentum in the middle and latter stages of the story the main character's seemingly inevitable bout with narcotics is forced and probably unnecessary it nevertheless presents an often searingly moving and dense account of what motivates a young, talented jazz musician. Mansbach, who received his M.F.A. from Columbia University and performs with jazz and hip-hop musicians as a spoken-word artist, is definitely a writer to watch. Highly recommended for all public and academic libraries. Roger A. Berger, Everett Community Coll., WA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Spoken-word artist and musician Mansbach debuts with the lyric story of a young tenor sax player exploring both the modern New York jazz scene and the experience of being a musician. Prodigy Latif James-Pearson heads to New York to find his hero, Albert Van Horn, reenacting the pilgrimages of decades past despite the fact that he is a jazz musician in a hip-hop world. 'Teef bounces his way into Dutchman's, the club of choice, but isn't able to dent the scene until one of the jazzmen casually asks if 'Teef can score him some you-know-what. He becomes an accidental drug dealer, reasoning that he needs to pay bills and it's cool as long as he doesn't do his own stuff. All seems fine for a while, and his aura is such that when Albert Van Horn does show up, he's so distracted by the kid's magic that he must absolutely find out what 'Teef is all about. It's his shot, and Latif takes it. In the meantime, he's begun a relationship with Mona, a white woman and painter who wants to love him and who believes it's possible to be a musician and a man at once. 'Teef isn't so certain. Mansbach sparkles throughout, finding just the right voice to explain the jazz/rap/hip-hop transition of the last 30 years and doing justice to all of it. As auspicious a debut as Colson Whitehead's The Intuitionist, though the focus here is more on music than race. A problem may be length—not too much of it, but too little: when 'Teef becomes an addict and Van Horn turns up dead, what we've got is a pocket-sized story of jazz when Mansbach's skill could have sustained an epic. Still, when the two men trade solos on stage, even those who don't know a whole note from a grace note will revel in glorious song and historyboth. A wonderful accomplishment.

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Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.50(d)

Read an Excerpt

Scales Riptide Latif

The fire music soul cascade was Latif's first serenade, clawing its way out of the family stereo and swirling round his head. He was fourteen years of age, and the dull metal tenor sax on his lap hummed suddenly electric as the redhot blue notes spiraled through it, bouncing like frenzied molecules against the instrument's interior. He had never heard anything like it in his life, this muscular horn spiking holes in the air with every honk and scream, puncturing time as it dove through a cresting tidal wave of drums. The horn dipped and bobbed above the amniotic ocean on winged ankles, shrieked and spiral-dive plummeted into it, vanishing inside the grave of Icarus only to reanimate ichthyoid, a toothy green sea monster undulating over brimstone waves.

Latif rocked and jerked in shifting rhythm, soaking in the serenity and tumult of creation. His music teacher watched and knew he'd made his point and then some. The song ended with bass strings thrumming, drum thunder rumbling in vicious summary and one clear ray of intense light, a horn line so clear it ripped a path from the sun straight through the ocean to the bottom and lit the water from within. The whole sea shimmered tranquil, and suddenly the concordance of these pushing pulling elements was clear: the purposed unity beneath the conflict and the probing and the play.

Mr. Gates relaxed his jaw and waited for Latif to speak. The boy had been his student three years now, and Gates knew without being told that Leda James-Pearson had hired him to give her son weekly lessons out of much more than a simple cultured wish to fill a child's head with music. It was preventive surgery, the desire to graft a saxophone on to an idle hand and innocent mouth before they grew so strong and eloquent that other neighborhood teachers, lounging on trafficked corners and in dusky poolhalls, might find them useful. Latif was bending the corner of that age, strong-wristed and beginning to walk home from school the long way. Obligation to his mother and tacit friendship with his teacher conspired to keep the music lessons coming, but until that afternoon Latif had merely been out to do what everyone he knew was out to do: hustle, push a rap star car through the small radius of Roxbury, Massachusetts, and out into the world beyond, do what had to be done to make a killing.

A killer in the making, his mother thought in darkest moments, watching Latif jaywalk the block to cross the players' paths. Nothing sheathed his interest save a fourteen-year-old's transparent cool, one that fell away at the first acknowledging headnod, phrase, or shoulder-bang embrace. But in the minutes between the delicate dusty touch of stylus to vinyl and the record arm's automatic click, rise, end-of-side glide back into standby—in the song's white spaces, the stolen moments between the saxophone's very notes—Latif's vague aspirations froze and shattered in midair like liquid nitrogen confections.

The truculent truncated boom-kick headbanger boogie of hip hop drums seemed frozen too, all of a moment, like ice chips hacked from glaciers. Hip hop was the indigenous attitude of Latif's ninety decca ecosystem, a malaproper melange of tired braggadocio and quickdraw innovation, pimpology and brothersisterhood. America not as melting pot but mixing board, wedged between two turntables and a microphone, amalgamating tortured newness from the scraps of dying sonic dynasties, postmodern like a motherfucker. The inheritor of Amiri Baraka's poetry-of-new-jazz ploy of cleaving words and letting separate juices flow from each linguistic chunk, hip hop was rap/id, dis/missive, a now/here neighbor/hood, u/n/i/verse the world. Hip hop was rugged drumsounds dredged from the diamond-laden mine of recorded history and reverse-processed into blunt lumps of coal that left your ears sootstreaked with funk.

But the rigidity of sampled sounds was child's play against the mathematics of what Latif had just heard. This drummer's accents shed their skin and slithered; his cymbals hissed with minute tonal variations, and his sticks lunged deadly at the floor toms.

And the horn shining on this record eclipsed every lyrical asswhipping ever spit, burned through the cloudy local soundscape with pure raw open honesty, so emotional yet so precise, so far removed from any kind of pose. After three years laboring in service to an unseen master, working his indifferent lazy-fingered way through the simple melodies his teacher gave him, Latif reached consciousness together with conclusion. He understood upon hearing the record that he must learn to blow this climbing angular tangle of ministry, of history, mystery, and misery in synchronicity—knew it like his mother's hands before he knew what it was or why.

His limbs felt heavier, more profound, as if the knowledge had filled some hollowness within his bones. Latif stared at the bronze of his horn until his eyes softened and unfocused, letting the color melt across his field of vision, then blinked it back to clarity and looked up at Mr. Gates, suddenly the second most important person in Latif's life: the conduit to the tenor player on the record, Albert Van Horn.

They saw each other every day from then on, playing and listening, learning and teaching, talking as musicians. Mr. Gates, Wessel, strained and stuttered to tell everything he could, to hand down ritual and technique, mechanics and folklore, as Latif sat with his head wide open and eyes wired wild with desire. Wessel studied him, amazed, gazing from Latif's ears to his hands and wondering if there was anything inside him, any bone or blood or flesh to slow the flow of knowledge, because it seemed that there was not. Wessel's words and music's sounds entered Latif's ears and tumbled out his horn with freefall speed.

The kid got bad so fast. Things Wess had played at twenty-six, a grown and traveled man, Latif was figuring out by seventeen. Snatches of frenetic luminosity punctuated his solos; he wrapped superstrong infant hands around the language and spoke by squeezing, snapping, and tapping at its joints. He learned to think in diverse signatures and became a black cat flitting underfoot across the regimented path of America's music marathon parade.

By eighteen Latif was ballplayer lanky and clean headed, with intelligent hands and an undated bus ticket to Manhattan. His soft darkbrown gaze rolled across the inert latenight street outside his bedroom window, but his fingers never strayed from the saxophone balanced in his knee-crook. He traced the rimtop with a thumbnail, pressed his heartshaped lips together flat and imagined meeting Van Horn, firm in the resolution that the musician should know nothing of his existence until he was worth Van Horn's knowing. He imagined himself tiptoeing in the great man's shadow, learning secretly by slow degrees, then springing from the darkness fully formed into the light. Night after night Latif in his bedroom listened at Van Horn honk wail scream lament and chastise, stayed up until weak watery sunlight trickled through the window crimebars and striped the walls. He huddled in a tiny energetic ball, or shadowboxed, or paced the room with long unfurling strides as Van Horn played. Sometimes Latif drifted, letting his mind graze and wander fields of fourleaf clover and deadly hemlock, and other times he balled his hands and bowed his head, concentrating on the music note for note.

He left for New York suddenly one morning, two weeks before his nineteenth birthday, redeeming his dogeared ticket and boarding the Bonzai Bus at six a.m. after a final night of study.

Something had surged over his bedroom in the small morning hours, a wellspring of adrenaline Latif had never felt before. It was as if a python cord of energy had looped through him, turned Latif into a needle's eye, connected him to others in a chain, and lifted him until he dangled legs akimbo. Albert Van Horn was in the chain too, and Wessel Gates; Latif felt them both distinctly within the rich black rope of the tradition. Below it was the music, awesome and ordered perfect like life from an airplane window.

Latif touched down still weightless and jumped into the struggle like a soldier from a chopper. He gathered up his saxophone and soloed with the Van Horn solo that was playing; over and under and around it, answering its questions and questioning its answers, covering Van Horn with bursts of protective gunfire when he charged through open battlefields and sprinting in his wake to safety when there was some. When the music ended Latif laid down his horn, feeling spent and ready. He stuffed a duffel bag, tucked a stack of records underneath his arm and lifted the crimebars from his window, vaulted the ledge and clambered down the fire escape, horn in hand. He ran to the bus station in a crazy hopscotch pattern, the sound and rhythm of his footfalls reprising the solo he'd just played. The metronome of his breathing stayed sure and true as Latif ran, sneakers slapping color onto empty streets.

Timekeeping Shedding Dutchman's

New York was two places. There was Dutchman's, five night a week host to the Albert Van Horn Quartet, and there was the hothouse Harlem block on which Latif's boardinghouse crouched, fifteen degrees warmer than life all year round. In a furnished corner room Latif slept, played his horn, and heated breakfast: cans of hash and instant oatmeal on a hotplate he'd set up against the rules. It was either that or clothes-iron grilled cheese, an entree too degenerate to contemplate.

Uptown radiated flavors he knew well. It was depressing and comforting to think that black folks were stuck in the same trifling neighborhoods both here and there, the Apple and the Bean. More shit was open late here, ten 24/7 bodegas for everyone back home, and malt liquor was cheaper in the Bean though advertised as prominently in both cities—as though dudes on their way to work or school or church just up and impulse-copped a forty of Olde English because they saw a poster of a woman with some big titties cradling a bottle in her arms—skidded to a halt in front of the store like Hmm, yes, come to think of it I have been meaning to get inebriated as fuck and thus temporarily forget my plight as a walking crime suspect and police shooting target. I believe I shall get me some drank, forsooth.

Same iambic rhythms to the convo on the streetcorners and same trochaic laughter spearing and reshuffling the rhythms. Same predatory glances shooting from brothers' eyes to sisters' asses and same anger and fear falling from women's downcast eyes onto the pavement. Same churches, same bums. Same deep-frying grease, same chicken and whitefish joints, same snipes for rap albums and gospel shows pasted to the scaffolding of buildings. Same McDonald's and Popeyes crowding out the mom-and-pop joints, same corporate philosophies mandating that eateries in black neighborhoods be short on seating space lest customers get comfortable. Same urban-renewal in the form of trendy clothing chainstores, same keep-the-money-in-the-neighborhood backlash fading before the bottom line.

Only major neighborhood difference Latif noticed off the muscle was the Spanish population, the Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Colombians, and Cubans in the spot. Busybody blockparty mamis held down sidestreet stoops and watched their squealing brightfaced children twist the remote controls of toy monster cars, which zipped circles around the midblock summer domino tables peopled by foursomes of sixty-something caballeros holding ivory bones against their paunches, computations running through their heads. Empty cervezas fr'as jutted from the pavement like stalagmites, and arroz con pollo mingled in the air with yerba. Merengue lit up some apartments, James Brown others. Hip hop drowned everything when Jeeps rolled by, and teenage smoke ciphers chorused their approval when somebody crept through bumping something hot.

Local Spanish businesses were just as raggedy as the black ones, Latif noticed. The boutique some mu-eca had opened up next to the roti spot was as empty as papi's corner deli, tragically understocked with nothing but overripe plátanos, stale Dutchies and Private Stock. The TV repair shop was full, but only with electronic junkheaps and the laughter of four mujeres gordas watching telenovelas and playing hearts in the backroom.

The sole independent business on its feet appeared to be Good Buddy Chinese Takeout Kitchen, which in addition to flipping sweet-and-sour chicken and pork fried rice had diversified in order to better serve its customers, embracing a wide multicultural variety of shit you could fry. Folks were particularly open off the mofungo and the Szechuan-style yucca con ajio, dished up hot out the wok with a little soy sauce. Cheap and generous, the spot had garnered a devoted clientele: The young hustlers on the block ate there so much, people joked, that the staff knew everybody's name, address, and diet. If he notice you ain orderin enough iron, money throw some spinach in with your Kung Pao Shrimp no extra charge. Even got free delivery for when you too treed up to walk a half a street up. Styrofoam combination plate containers lined with emptysqueezed packets of duck sauce blew across the sidewalks of the block, slapping Latif's ankles as he made his journey to the downtown train station each evening.

At Dutchman's Latif studied, ate a liquid dinner, worked his hustle. Everyone has one, he'd realized soon after stepping off the bus and into New York's radiant midday. A dream and a hustle. He thought it now, months later, to reassure himself, repeated it to calm the bile simmering in him over what he was and what he feared he wasn't. Latif sat in bed watching calligraphs of smoke rise from the cigarette between his fingertips, left arm locked flat atop the triangle's peak of his knee like the scales of justice. Outside one window: kids playing stickball. Down below the other: an apparent dice game he could only hear, ears tuned to the clicks of red and green cubes tumbling against the buildingside and to the shittalk of the players, which escalated into threats of violence with parabolic predictability. Latif's eyes, agile beneath awnings that hovered a hairsbreadth nearer to the curves of his irises than they used to, were learning to slide across whole spaces rather than dart from A to B.

The kid got bad so fast. Three months off the bus and he was twice the musician he remembered having been, that vague kid who sat up every night inhaling sounds until he hyperventilated himself into a cosmic meditative frenzy, and three times the man. He'd been all nerve endings then, so soaked in the kerosene of his own sweat that a single distant spark could set him thoroughly aflame. Now Latif was firewalking every evening.

The sudden ducats in his wallet burned holes not through his pocket but his patience; the thirst for confrontation had been mounting in Latif for weeks, tickling the back of his parched throat. The fact that he was a jazz world baby, an infant swimming on mere instinct in a reservoir of untapped knowledge, didn't mean shit anymore. He'd slapboxed the thought into submission.

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