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Cross-dresser. Drag artist. Transvestite. Chances are, those words conjure up a particular picture in your mind: a man in a wig and lipstick, his long, carefully shaved legs squeezed into oversize high heels. The idea that a woman other than some battle-scarred heroine like Joan of Arc or Mulan might assume the guise of the other sex is harder for us to grasp. So when Billy Tipton -- jazz artist, married man and father -- died a few years ago and was revealed to have been, in fact, a woman, his story turned into a worldwide cause celebre. A man who becomes a woman is a humbled and softened thing. A woman who becomes a man is a disturbing anomaly.
In Trumpet, first-time novelist Jackie Kay, working off some of the basic facts of the Tipton case and imaginatively filling in her own details, tells a sad and tender story that just happens to be surrounded by surreal circumstances. She strips away the prurient gawking, forcing the reader to consider basic concepts of love and sex in new ways. As the different voices of the narrative accumulate, a saga unfolds of two simple people who have loved despite, or perhaps because of, the secret they shared.
As the novel begins, Joss Moody's widow (as she calls herself), Millie, is fending off a tabloid firestorm and her adopted son's outrage over his "father's" true sex. But although she's retreating from a sideshow, Millie's foremost emotions are the same as those of anyone who's just lost a loved one. She grieves. She shuffles around in a lonely trance. And she remembers -- remembers the man she initially fell in love with, the woman she eventually discovered and the lover and companion of her life. Though Joss' original motives for cross-dressing are never fully revealed, neither is the rightness nor the necessity of his choice ever questioned. And when sensation-fueled reporters smack their lips at the scandal and ask Millie what it was like to be "living a lie," she can only wonder how what felt like real life to her can seem like such a falsehood to everyone else.
Kay writes with quiet assurance, skipping back and forth both in time and among characters with the deftness of a knowing guide. Her only weakness may be ambition: To the already complicated story of gender crossing she adds race mixing, a thread she keeps picking up and putting down erratically. And she might have been able to convey her point about love conquering all without making both Millie and Joss so darn nice and noble. Their marriage may indeed have been a meeting of soul mates, but if Joss Moody was so all-fired-up perfect, he'd have been the first jazz musician of his kind in history.
In a way, though, the virtuous compatibility of Joss and Millie is at the heart of Kay's point. What makes the romance extraordinary isn't that one half of the duo binds her breasts and boldly strides into men's rooms. It's that theirs is a relationship based on total acceptance and unconditional love. Gender swapping is as common as the next episode of Jerry Springer. But happy marriages only come along once in a blue moon. -- Salon
This is a tricky premise for any novelist, let alone a first-timer, and one would be forgiven for expecting a tale that is prurient, hyper-political, and/or downright freaky. But Trumpet is none of the above: instead, it is a quiet, poetic, and occasionally wry tale that transcends its rather trendy subject matter to become a wise and deep examination of gender and, more important, of love.
Kay accomplishes this Herculean feat by showing Joss to us through several people's eyes. There's Millie, of course, who is the heart of this novel, so movingly does she tell the story of her great, unusual love. Particularly affecting are the passages in which she describes the couple's early courtship and the way Joss literally revealed his secret to her. When she describes her grief -- "when the love of your life dies, the problem is not that some part of you dies too, which it does, but that some part of you is still alive" -- her pain is palpable. Equally compelling are Colman's memories of his father, at once loving and arrogant, and now -- having just discovered the "truth" about his dad -- tinged with a snide bitterness he hopes will mask the pain: "My father had tits. My father didn't have a dick.... How many people had fathers like mine? Which chat line could I ring up for this one?" More surprising, but at least as interesting, are Kay's chapters on the "little people" -- the undertaker, the county registrar obliged to write the death certificate -- who come upon Joss's gender while in the line of duty. (There's also the obligatory portrait of a scandal-mongering journalist who tries to seduce Colman into participating in a tell-all book.) By balancing the stories of relative strangers with those who knew Joss most intimately, Kay draws a complete picture of a life and a lie.
And yet, Kay's main subject here is the relevance of gender to intimacy. It's a testament to Kay's fine writing -- and even finer understanding of the inexplicable nature of human attraction -- that the reader often forgets that Joss was really a woman. (Neither the writer nor the reader stumbles over the pronouns: Joss, whatever his biological makeup, is a man to Kay, to his family, and to us.) Her characters are so convincing in their ordinariness and the relationship between them so "normal" -- childrearing, work, arguments over breakfast -- that the gender of the participants hardly matters. Which, after all, is the point. "True love doesn't know from pants or skirts," a wise old-world friend of mine used to opine; although she says it far more gracefully, Jackie Kay clearly agrees.
This is a subject, even a worldview, that has been addressed in literature for centuries (Think of all those Shakespeare cross-dressing plays), and it seems to have had a particular resurgence in recent years. Like the Broadway hit "M Butterfly," Trumpet addresses the vagaries of gender and sex, but unlike that play -- which was based on a true story -- Trumpet is far more believable; in Kay's vision there is no way that the hero's lover wouldn't know of his gender. Clearly, Trumpet's plot line owes a lot to the story American jazz musician Billy Tipton, who -- when he died in the mid-90s -- was found to be a woman. (See Diane Wood Middlebrook's fascinating nonfiction account of Tipton's life, Suits Me.) But again, Kay's preoccupation with the inner lives of her characters -- and with Millie in particular -- and her comparative lack of interest in the particulars of the Moodys' sex life make this a deeper, more profound story. Most comparable to Rose Tremain's wonderful Sacred Country -- about a young British woman struggling with her sexuality in 1960s London -- Trumpet is both about and above its subject matter: a moving, searching tale of love and commitment, and of what it means to know and be known.
Sara Nelson, the former executive editor of The Book Report, is the book columnist for Glamour. She also contributes to Newsday, The Chicago Tribune, and Salon.
Trumpet opens with Moody's death. Kay takes the reader through the minds of the people closest to him: his mourning wife, Millie, and angry son, Coleman. Kay changes voices as she changes chapters, venturing into the innermost thoughts and feelings of the people Joss Moody left behind. This is an interesting literary device -- when it works it's mesmerizing. Kay also focuses heavily on Sophie Stones, the sleazy journalist who pushes Coleman to let her ghostwrite the tell-all Joss Moody book.
The true life story is a tabloid dream -- what self-respecting voyeur wouldn't find it fascinating? You want to get inside these minds, and you can. But the thing that makes the book is an unexpectedly tender love story: Millie and Joss were madly in love. The descriptions of the two when they were first courting are darling. You root for them to get together. The courtship was tense, the revelation of Joss's secret emotional life touching. The life they led together was the kind of life everyone hopes for when they marry. Joss and Millie kept each other company, enjoyed Sunday brunches, and had good sex well after they were married. They gave to each other. They interacted. They cared. Still, they shared this amazing secret that no one else knew. Millie wrapped constricting bandages around Joss's chest daily. Not even Coleman, their son, had ever seen his father naked.
"I managed to love my husband from the moment I clapped eyes on him till the moment he died," Millie Moody thinks. "I managed to desire him all of our married life. I managed to respect and love his music. I managed to always like the way he ate his food. I managed to be faithful, to never be interested in another man. I managed to be loyal, to keep our private life where it belonged. To not tell a single soul including my own son about our private life. I managed all that. I know I am capable of loving to the full capacity, of not being frightened of loving too much, of giving myself up over and over. I know that I loved being the wife of Joss Moody."
This is the greatest achievement of Kay's novel. She allows this notion of love to shine through, that love is a rare something that happens between two people, and you never know when or with whom it will happen. Millie didn't. But she didn't turn away when it struck.
Alexandra Zissu writes for a weekly newspaper in Manhattan, where she lives.
"It has a humanity and sympathy which engaged me from start to finish. And its energy and directness made it a treat to read. . . . [Trumpet makes] us see that people apparently very unlike ourselves are in fact very much like ourselves. . . . Love is not usually such a triumphant idea in modern writing, but I think Jackie Kay makes it believably and vividly so."
-- Ian Jack, Granta
"Kay spins a love story, a fairy tale, and a psychological thriller out of one deep secret. She has a great gift for delving inside sundry souls, making poetry of their quirks. At its best, her prose ripples like jazz and brims with exquisite insights."
-- Andrea Ashworth, author of Once in a House on Fire
"Jackie Kay makes the unbelievable gloriously real. For a first novel this is remarkably assured, full of melody and tension. Each character is given a singing part, bouncing notes and harmonies off each other as Joss's story is teasingly, movingly revealed. ...Trumpet is a love story and a lament, beautifully told." -- Eithne Farry, Time Out
"A hypnotic story...about the walls between what is known and what is secret--. Spare, haunting, dreamlike."---Time
"Splendid...[Kay's] imaginative leaps in story and language will remind some readers of a masterful jazz solo."---The San Francisco Chronicle
I follow the road down to the sea. This walk is so familiar the memory of it is in my feet. I don't even need to look. So many times with Joss, down the steep hill from Torr, round the corner of the harbour and up the other side towards the cliffs. Arm in the crook of arm down the hill, then when we came to the cliff path we'd separate, single file, Joss always behind me. It is muddy with all the rain. Slippy, dangerous. I keep on, taking one step up the cliff path at a time. The sea is moaning like a sick person. I can't take my eyes off it. No matter how many times I am near it, it never ceases to frighten me. I stand and watch the sea's wild movements, the huge awesome leaps. I can hear Joss saying, 'The great beast.' Down below, the upturned fishing boats look lifeless, lonely. I know which boat belongs to which man. Their oars, like long sad arms waiting to be lifted and brought to life. I am tense; afraid somebody is going to pounce on me. I shouldn't have come out. I'll need to head back. It is even harder coming down. I must be mad. I could tumble and fall into the sea. The idea is strangely attractive to me. There is nothing behind or in front of me: just me and the wind and the sea. Everything is so familiar it is terrifying. I try to hush my breathing. I break into a run. My legs are shorter. Grief is making me shrink.
I unlock my door and rush inside the house. My heart is in my mouth. It feels wrong; there is something the matter with this place. I listen for noises. It is as if somebody else is here or has been here. I go from room to room looking. My own coat hanging on a door hook startles me. The sudden flashlight of a car sweeping past outside. Nothing. This fear is taking me over. If they are not stalking me, I am doing it to myself. I try to make light of my fears. It was our secret. That's all it was. Lots of people have secrets, don't they? The world runs on secrets. What kind of place would the world be without them? Our secret was harmless. It did not hurt anybody.
There must be a mistake we made. A big mistake; hiding somewhere that I somehow missed.
I sit down on Joss's armchair. I am not sure what to do with myself. I find myself getting agitated, now wondering what to do with my hands. I pick up a book and try to read a paragraph but it doesn't go in. The words spill and lurch in front of me making no sense. I close the book and turn on the television. But the sound of the chat-show host's voice, the speed of his talk, distresses me. I turn it off. I put on some music. I can listen to music. I try and breathe with it because my breathing still isn't right. It is still too fast. Joss's breathing became very fast in the end. Fast and shallow. When I think of the breath he used to take in and out to blow that trumpet! When he was dying, I thought if only he could have one big trumpet breath, he'd get some relief.
The summer before I met Joss, I was here at Torr with my brother and his family. I felt restless, discontented with my life. I wanted a passion, somebody to speed up time with a fast ferocious love. We didn't have hot water then. At night, I'd sing in the freezing cold bathroom whilst I washed myself with the pot full of hot water in the old cracked sink, Some day he'll come along, the man I love; And he'll be big and strong, The man I love ... Maybe I shall meet him Sunday, Maybe Monday -- maybe not; Still I'm sure to meet him one day -- Maybe Tuesday will be my good news day. Then I'd lie on my thin hard bed trying to paint him in watercolours. I gave him a strong jaw.
I can still picture him the day we met in that blood donor's hall in Glasgow. How could I have known then? He was well dressed, astonishingly handsome, high cheekbones that gave him a sculpted proud look; his eyes darker than any I'd ever seen. Thick black curly hair, the tightest possible curls, sitting on top of his head, like a bed of springy bracken. Neat nails, beautiful hands. I took him all in as if I had a premonition, as if I knew what would happen. His skin was the colour of Highland toffee. His mouth was a beautiful shape. I had this feeling of being pulled along by a pack of horses. In my mind's eye I could see them, galloping along until they came to the narrow path that led to the big house. The huge dark gates. It was as if I had no say in what was going to happen to me, just this giddy sick excitement, this terrible sense of fate. We both give blood, I thought to myself. I wondered what made him give blood, what family accident, what trauma. We didn't speak that first time, though I could feel him looking at me.
The fire is shrinking too. Collapsing in on itself, turning to ash. I get up and put the guard over the fire and go into the kitchen. I stand next to the kettle for an age, rubbing my hands till the shrill whistle pierces through me as if I wasn't expecting it. I make myself a cup of tea to take to bed. Sleeping in our bed here is so terrible, I considered sleeping in Colman's old room, or sleeping on the couch downstairs, or sleeping on the floor. I felt as if I'd be deserting Joss though. I climb into our old bed and place my cup of tea at my side. The space next to me bristles with silence. The emptiness is palpable. Loss isn't an absence after all. It is a presence. A strong presence here next to me. I sip my tea and look at it. It doesn't look like anything, that's what is so strange. It just fits in. Last night I was certain it was a definite shape. I bashed the sheets about to see if it would declare itself. It won't let me alone and it won't let me sleep. I try to find sleep. Sleep is out there where Joss is, isn't it? That's what the headstones tell you. Who Fell Asleep On. Sleeping. Fell Asleep on Jesus. Joss is out there sleeping behind the sea wall. I can't sleep any more. Not properly. Sleep scratches at me then wakes me up. I dip down for a moment then surface again, my eyes peeling the darkness away. I don't know how many hours I have had of it since he died. It can't be many. It was a form of torture, wasn't it, sleep deprivation?
If I don't try to sleep, it might sneak up on me, capture me. I won't try to sleep. I will try to remember. The next time is six months later. We are back giving blood on the same day, Tuesday. I am brazen, full of knowledge. I approach him and ask him out. It is 1955. Women don't do this sort of thing. I don't care. I am certain this man is going to be my lover. When you are certain of something, you must take your chance; you mustn't miss your opportunity or life is lost. I remember my grandfather telling me that; how he knew with my grandmother, how he courted her until he had her. I tell him I've noticed him here before. We talk about giving blood, how we both hate it, but like clenching our fist and the biscuit afterwards. I ask him if he watches the blood being drained out of himself. He says he looks away at anything else. He says he is quite squeamish. What about you, he asks me, what do you do? I tell him I like to watch the blood filling up, the wonderful rich colour of it. He laughs as if he suddenly likes me. Then we both fall silent and he stares at me awkwardly, puzzled by me just coming up to him like this. But he isn't trying to get rid of me. He is looking me up and down as if appraising me. I am glad that I am wearing my good dress, with the polka dots and the straps. I know I look good.
We go for a drink in Lauder's bar. He tells me his name is Joss Moody and I ask him if that is his real name. He is offended. I see a look cross his face that I haven't seen before. Of course it is his real name, what am I talking about. I tell him it sounds like a stage name, like a name that someone would make up in anticipation of being famous. He laughs at that and tells me he is going to be famous. I laugh too, nervously. I know he's going to be famous also. I could have noticed then, I suppose. The way he was so irritated with me asking him about his name. I say, 'My name is Millie MacFarlane,' as if I'd just heard it for the first time, as if my own name was miles away from who I am. I say, 'Millicent MacFarlane, but my friends call me Millie,' suddenly shy. We talk about anything. He tells me he plays the trumpet. He is so pleased with himself for playing the trumpet, I can see that. He says the word, 'trumpet,' and his eyes shine. 'Would you like one for the road, Millie?' he asks. Him saying my name makes me weak. I hold onto the table and watch him go to the bar for his whisky and my gin.
He walks me to my flat in Rose Street, Number 14. And leaves me. 'I know where you are now,' he says. A little kiss on my cheek. I get in and throw myself on my bed, punch my pillow. Then I stroke the side of my cheek Joss Moody kissed and say, courting to myself, courting, courting, courting until it sounds like a beautiful piece of music.
We court for three months. A kiss on the cheek at the end of the date. Meeting at Boots' Corner, at The Shell in Central Station, or below the Hielan' Man's umbrella under where the trains come out of Central Station on Argyle Street, between Hope Street and Union Street. The times I've waited for Joss sheltered from the rain, under the Hielan' Man's umbrella, imagining the Highland men years ago, fresh down from the Highlands talking excited Gaelic to each other. Either we go drinking or we go dancing. Great dance halls in Glasgow. Dancing at the Playhouse, at Denniston Palais, at the Locarno, the Astoria or the Plaza, it seemed nobody would ever get old. Nobody would ever die. Even the ugly looked beautiful. Joss was a wonderful dancer; he loved to strut his stuff on those dance floors. A hive of jive. He was showbiz itself already. They all were. I remember laughing till I cried, watching one man after another get up at the Locarno and imitate Frank Sinatra singing 'Dancing in the Dark'. The Carswell Clothes Shop competition. I remember loving the names of those bands at the dance halls -- Ray McVey Trio, Doctor Crock and the Crackpots, Joe Loss, Oscar Rabin, Carl Barritean, Harry Parry, Felix Mendelson, and, my favourite, the Hawaiian Serenaders. Dancing makes us both happy. Big steps. Quickstep. Dip. We dance at the Barrowland way into the early hours. The atmosphere, jumping. The dance style, gallus. There is no tomorrow. There is just the minute, the second, the dip. The heat and the sweat. That feeling of being your body. Body and soul.
We come out of the Playhouse full of the night. Joss takes me home and walks off again, hands in pocket. I watch him turn the corner of Rose Street into Sauchiehall Street before going in. He never looks back. Never waves. I begin to think that there is something wrong. Either Joss is terribly proper and old-fashioned or there is something wrong. He never tries to touch me. He holds my hand or we walk with our arms round each other. We kiss, short soft kisses. Three months of kisses on my left cheek, soft timeless kisses that grow into buds and wait. Each night I go home madly in love with Joss and terribly frustrated. I am twenty and he is thirty; perhaps the age difference is making him shy. Still, I am not a schoolgirl any more.
At night, I watch Joss walk up the street, hands in his pockets. He has a slow deliberate walk, like he's practised it. I go into my small bedroom. I have a single bed in the room, a dresser and a small wardrobe. I stare at myself in the mirror. Rub night cream into my cheeks for a long time. Imagine Joss standing behind me. Undress. Drape my bathrobe over my shoulders. Rub more cream into my cheeks. Use a powder puff under my breasts. Joss, behind me. I sigh, put my white nightdress on and climb heavily into my bed. I can hear Helen, my flatmate, up and about. I listen to her noises and fall off asleep where I'll dream of Joss again and again and wake myself up in the middle of the night.
I know I am waiting for something to happen.
Posted July 21, 2012
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Jackie Kay takes her poetic talent to work with this novel. In passages describing Joss Moody's trumpet playing, she overwhelms the reader with Joss's love for his music. The multiple-character point-of-view is done in a strange, yet enjoyable, fashion. It is somewhat stream-of-consciousness, but not so much that you feel lost or confused. You immediately feel Millie's grief and her son Colman's rage. What is most fascinating is how you begin to feel for Joss even though he never gets to tell his version of the story. Through the other characters, you begin to sympathize with him. While reading, I wondered how she might end this successfully, and all I can say is that she did a fabulous job. This book may very well make you think twice about roles you play and identities you give. I plan to read this again.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.