Wednesday, February 12, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Gabriel's Trumpet

It isn't often that I open a book with little to no idea what I'm in for. I received a review copy of Jon Black's Gabriel's Trumpet and, other than a vague idea of the story, I had no idea what the true genre was. Was it paranormal? Murder mystery? The simple answer is — to reveal the genre beyond "historical fiction" would be, in a way, to reveal the ending. And Gabriel's Trumpet benefits from the reader being in the same seat of curiosity as its protagonist, Dr. Marcus Roads.

Marcus is here to find out exactly what the reader is: what the hell is going on, and can it be classified as otherworldly? He's a researcher for the Boston Society for Psychical Research, sniffing out hokum alongside the best and worst of them. The physician is both valuable and contentious in his field for the same reason: he doesn't fudge results. His current case? Find out whether a jazz trumpeter really has come back from the dead to play his way to stardom, accompanied by his iconic silver trumpet.

Marcus's journey is a retrospective of the life of Gabriel "Resurrection" Gibbs, from his youth in the church to his dubious business ventures, his death and (apparently) new life lighting up New York's Harlem Renaissance. And, it seems, you can't follow Gibbs without becoming a part of his story. What starts as a few wagon rides to reticent family members turns into life-or-death scrapes, spiritual battles, and mysterious encounters.

The path following Gabriel Gibbs is, as it happens, a path through African-American culture of the early 20th century. His story winds through Christian life, takes a detour through New Orleans mysticism, and emerges in the midst of the 1920s Harlem Renaissance. Expect look-ins from notable names and faces — some you'll know instantly, others buried by time and virtue of not making it into your high school reading curriculum.

A goodly portion of the book is, in fact, real; though unless you're already well informed about the period (and paranormal research in particular), only illusionist/mythbuster Harry Houdini and a few others are likely to occur to the reader. This doesn't take away from the experience at all: if anything, there's something delightful about discovering that most of the strange characters you've been encountering were quite real, after all.

Gabriel's Trumpet, given its subject matter, shies away from very little. However, it approaches the issues it touches in a surprisingly open way. Matters of politics, the ethics of certain occupations, and the intersection of racial identity and the arts are raised, debated in front of Marcus, and laid to rest as he observes them. No attempt is made to pass judgment on either stance — we're simply shown that stances exist. It's almost Charles Fort-esque (another historical figure present in the narrative) in its presentation: Black and Marcus aren't here to tell you what to think, they're only here to present you with the different pieces of the puzzle and leave the rest to you.

In fact, there's only one part of the story that has any real "right" answer: the ending. Because despite this being a very "about the journey" story, we aren't going to be left empty-handed for our troubles. A very few people get to learn the full truth of Gabriel Gibbs and his miraculous resurrection. They can be counted on one hand, and the reader is one of those fingers.

Which isn't to say that stories with absent or unclear endings are inherently bad. But that, plus no through-lines in the text for possible end points, makes an unclear ending seem like a hand-wave to distract from shoddy writing. In the case of Gabriel's Trumpet, we have twice the strength: not only are we given a full debriefing, we're also given enough clues throughout the text to find it for ourselves, should the author have chosen to forego the explanation.

If there is an issue with Gabriel's Trumpet, it's the same issue you'll find with any heavily researched fiction. While the story appears to be constructed specifically to allow us a walk through this point in history, there are times when even that carefully-constructed frame bends under the weight of Black's research. It's understandable. There's a lot to tell, especially in a story that's gamely joining up 20th century black history and 20th century paranormal research in one narrative. Some of these passages were handled well, with Marcus awash in situations he'd never known possible. Others were tonally dissonant and made me come up for air at unexpected times — but these moments were never deal-breakers.

The race to confirm or debunk the resurrection of Gabriel Gibbs is infectious. Gabriel's Trumpet pulls its protagonist — and its reader — through scene after seemingly disparate scene, illuminating an unexpected history along the way. The story of "Resurrection" Gibbs really is the story of the Harlem Renaissance. What that means is this book's true payoff.

Pick up Gabriel's Trumpet from 18th Wall Productions

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