No man is an island, not even a loner who has dodged commitment for all of his 40 years. And when a man like that goes off the rails the impact on others can be profound. Such a man — jazz musician Circus Palmer — is at the center of Laura Warrell’s moody and musical debut novel “Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm.” Like the title, taken from a Jelly Roll Morton description of how jazz should be played, Circus’s journey is a mix of familiar refrains and extemporization, all springing from how we touch each other in lust, hate, and love.
Circus Palmer is in a good place when we meet him. It is 2013, and the larger-than-life trumpet player is enjoying his 40th birthday with Maggie, “the only female in his life who knew how to be easy,” when the first jab comes. Maggie is pregnant with his child. Reeling from this news — “I already got a kid barely talks to me,” he tells her — Circus pushes her away with a casually cruel remark before picking up a young woman on the beach right below the hotel room he and Maggie have been sharing.
Seeking solace, or at least distraction, from what will soon become a full-blown midlife crisis, he then ricochets into other women he has known for decades, from his ex-wife Pia, whose conventional prettiness once seemed enough, to his first love Carmen, who had been a star when they’d both been conservatory students 20 years earlier. Along the way, he drops back into the life of his 15-year-old daughter, Koko, and several new women as well, creating more chaos than love as he careers around Miami and New York, as well as his hometown of Boston. By the time he regains his equilibrium, along with some hard-won truths about himself, all these lives will be changed for better or for worse, including his own.
Warrell excels at describing these points of contact — more often bruising impact than connection — conveying the varying degrees of longing, loneliness, and even aversion that can bring two people together, at least for a night. One occasional lover, for example, understands Circus as “the only man who touched her so indelicately that something animal in her seemed to emerge, loosening her like fossils from a rock.”
Her Circus is clear enough on what he wants, fully aware that this ideal doesn’t include commitment: “It was the going he liked, liked the unclasping of links, liked getting to whatever was waiting at the other end of his leaving.” What he doesn’t understand is why. Nor does he take the time to appreciate the havoc his continual motion wreaks on others, a range of damage that Warrell depicts with poetic particularity. “As she imagined running her fingers through his hair, she knew there was nothing she wanted to change about him, except whatever it was that kept him from loving her,” one woman realizes. For another, his matter-of-fact dismissal of her romantic fantasy is cataclysmic: “Her body seemed to cave in on itself,” Warrell writes. “Her mouth hung open, but the only words that came were ‘you’ and ‘no’ and ‘you’ and ‘no.’”
She’s also skilled at describing jazz — and, perhaps more important, what the music means to a musician. As Circus explains it, performing isn’t that different from the kind of lovemaking he prefers. At one point, it’s full of novelty and adventure: “It’s new every time,” he explains. “You got the notes and arrangements, yeah, but once you start playing, something different happens. You don’t know what’s gonna come.” At another, it exemplifies his lack of trust: “The things I say to my trumpet, I can’t say to anyone else,” he says. “Maybe I needed a safe place to put that breath.”
When he confronts a career roadblock, an older musician makes the connection clear. “You control that horn like a woman you don’t trust,” he tells Circus, even as he urges him not to despair. “Life is long.” It’s not that the music is a metaphor; it’s simply that Warrell’s confused and conflicted protagonist has poured everything he has into his art, including the trauma he’s running from.
Despite this sensitive portrayal, the book does have occasional off notes, as when the author brings the Marathon bombing into the mix and Koko, longing for connection, becomes infatuated with Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Her crush, and the rebellion it prompts, serve the plot, bringing the conflict between the teen and her mother to a breaking point. But the specificity — the ripped-from-the-headlines quality — feels jarring, at least to this Boston-area reader.
Warrell does much better when she sticks to the timeless dance we humans do: between love and fear, the need to embrace and the search for self. For Circus, Koko, and the score of others in this sprawling and ambitious book, it’s an improvisation, and at its best, it’s beautiful.
SWEET, SOFT, PLENTY RHYTHM
By Laura Warrell
Pantheon, 368 pages, $28
Clea Simon is the author most recently of “Hold Me Down.” She can be reached at www.cleasimon.com.