During the month of May, The Missouri Review will highlight a single short story to help celebrate National Short Story Month. We’ve asked a diverse group of readers and writers to participate by sharing a short story that demands to be read. Today’s blog post comes from writer Liz Prato.
I can’t remember the first time I heard other writers talk about “Sonny’s Blues.” It’s like the first time you heard someone mention Spinoza: you nodded your head knowingly and thought, Huh, I should go look that up sometime. My friend, Yuvi Zalkow, considers “Sonny’s Blues” to be a seminal factor in cementing his relationship with his now-wife. They were dating when they discovered they were both obsessed with the story. They decided to get a hotel room at the Oregon coast and spend the whole night discussing “Sonny’s Blues.” After that, Yuvi knew they were right for each other.
Now, that’s what we call a true lit-geek romance.
So, it’s not surprising that when I told Yuvi I’d never read “Sonny’s Blues” – that I couldn’t even find a copy of it – he took it upon himself to find it for me. Out of the blue, the mail brought me a used copy of a mass-market anthology published in the 1987. The first story in the collection was “Sonny’s Blues.”
I read it on my purple shabby-chic couch while my husband was at band practice. I was about two-thirds of the way through the story when my husband came home. “Don’t talk to me,” I said before he uttered a word. “I’m reading the greatest story ever.”
I read about it in the paper, in the subway, on my way to work. I read it, and I couldn’t believe it, and I read it again.
The sense of rhythm is instantaneous, the repetition, the call and response. From the very first line, Baldwin evokes both the source of the devil, and redemption, in this story: music. The music carried me through that first reading just like a bebop piece. I was drawn in by the catchy phrase, I stayed because of the constantly evolving complexity. I stayed to find out where it would take me. I keep going back because the music is somehow different each and every time.
I teach creative writing to adults, most of them floating somewhere along the spectrum of “beginners.” I teach (and by “teach” I mean “beat into”) them to not withhold critical information from the reader, to avoid too much backstory — lest it overwhelm the front story, to give your freaking narrator a name, for heaven’s sake, and to never, ever use adverbial dialogue tags. In “Sonny’s Blues,” Baldwin breaks all these rules.
The narrator — who is never named — spends four paragraphs telling us how troubled he is about Sonny being picked up in a drug raid before he tells us who Sonny is to him – his brother. A huge chunk of the story is told not just in backstory – but in backstory within backstory, within even more backstory. I mean, it’s crazy. About halfway through the piece, after Sonny has gotten out of jail and the narrator is trying to reconcile with him, the narrator starts remembering things. “This was the last time I ever saw my mother alive,” he says. But before he actually describes the last time he ever saw his mother alive, he goes even farther back and talks about when he was a kid and the adults would sit around the living room. When the narrator comes out of that back-backstory, he returns to the backstory of the last time he saw his mother alive. Then she tells him — in roughly eight hundred words – that his father had a brother, and that brother died in a cruel accident. Through Mama’s lips, Baldwin paints such a vivid description of the night the man was killed that we’re no longer in the living room with the narrator and his mother telling the story. We are on that hill, with the narrator’s Daddy and uncle, with the moon as bright as day and the uncle strumming his guitar, when a car full of drunk white men turned the narrator’s uncle into blood and pulp. The narrator’s father was never right again after that night. “He says he never in his life seen anything as dark as that road after the lights of that car had gone away,” Mama tells the narrator, bringing us back to the living room.
That’s what it means to lose a brother.
The story continues along this backstory timeline, with Mama’s death and the narrator coming home from the military for her funeral. He’s infused with a sense of responsibility toward Sonny. He feels the burden of making sure his younger brother turns out all right. Of course, everything doesn’t turn out all right. Sonny turns to jazz music and turns to heroin, and the narrator turns away from his brother.
I didn’t like the way he carried himself, loose and dreamlike all the time, and I didn’t like his friends, and his music seemed to be merely an excuse for the life he led. It sounded just that weird and disordered.
Sonny and the narrator have one last big fight, in which the narrator tells Sonny “he might just as well be dead as live the way he was living,” and Sonny says “not to worry about him anymore, that he was dead,” as far as they were concerned. That was the last time the brothers saw each other, until after Sonny got out of jail. We, as readers, have not forgotten Mama’s warning about how dark it is to lose a brother. The narrator may have pushed it deep down, for a while, but that darkness still follows us around. It’s what makes us care so much about whether or not the narrator and Sonny can work things out between them, in present story.
What if the chronology had been linear, instead of wrinkled? The story would have started . . . where? With the narrator as a child in the living room, while darkness fell over the adults? With Mama telling him about the death of his previously unknown uncle? With Mama dying? See, none of that would have been interesting if we hadn’t started with Sonny getting picked up in that drug raid. If the narrator hadn’t said on page one,
I was scared, scared for Sonny. He became real to me again. A great block of ice got settled in my belly and kept melting there slowly all day long, while I taught my classes algebra. It was a special kind of ice. It kept melting, sending trickles of ice water all up and down my veins, but it never got less.
That what we call stakes, my friends.
As for those adverbial dialogue tags (characters say things “grimly” and “knowingly” and “desperately” and “gently”), I don’t quite know how to explain them to my students. Mostly I ask them to notice how they move the dialogue along, how the reader doesn’t have to slow down and consider things, but get to focus on the importance of what the characters are actually saying. I say that because it makes me sound like I know what I’m talking about. But, really, if James Baldwin brought this story to my workshop, I’d be striking those adverbs in red pen. It pains me to admit it, but that’s the truth.
Here’s the thing about discussing a story that clocks in at roughly 13,800 words: it’s hard to do briefly. I’ve already rhapsodized extensively, and haven’t even mentioned that most transcendent ending in all of modern literature. My skin is shivering right now, just thinking about it, how Baldwin takes the motif and the theme and the plot and the characters and brings them all home with Scotch and milk and a piano. He brings them to rest.
Liz Prato writes and teaches in Portland, OR. Her stories and essays have been published in numerous journals and anthologies, including Hayden’s Ferry Review, Los Angeles Review, and Hunger Mountain. She is currently writing a memoir, and is about to dive into editing a short story anthology for Forest Avenue Press. Her not-so-recently updated website is www.lizprato.com