Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Wednesday, June 11, 2014: Maximum Shelf: 2 A.M. at The Cat's Pajamas

Crown: 2am at the Cat's Pajamas by Marie-Helene Berlino

Crown: 2am at the Cat's Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino

Crown: 2am at the Cat's Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino

Crown: 2am at the Cat's Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino

2 A.M. at The Cat's Pajamas

by Marie-Helene Bertino

Philadelphia native Marie-Helene Bertino (author of the story collection Safe as Houses) spotlights her home city in a torch song to the power of jazz, determination and serendipity. A cast of misfits, outsiders and the occasional has-been muddle through the two days before Christmas, unaware that their lives are on a collision course with each other and with the miraculous.

Precocious nine-year-old Madeleine Altimari already knows her calling in life is to follow in the footsteps of her late mother, a jazz singer "whose voice could redirect the mood of a room." Now that cancer has taken her mother and depression and addiction have hijacked her father, Madeleine can count on only herself to make her dreams come true. Unfortunately, she can't catch a break on stage, especially when the world loves sweet, straight-laced girls like her school rival Clare, and Madeleine herself is, frankly, "a jerk," albeit a thousand times more interesting than Clare because of it. Madeleine is as trapped in her cockroach-infested life as her "friend" the blue carousel horse: "Madeleine can feel its yearning to go up and down, its hooves frozen in midgallop.... It's busted, marooned and affixed to the sidewalk by an indiscreet pole, with no carnival for miles and no equine company." But when she learns of the existence of one of Philadelphia's remaining jazz clubs, The Cat's Pajamas, Madeleine fills with purpose: to find the club, get herself on stage, and sing her lungs out to glory. Her neighbor Mrs. Santiago warns her, "They turn all the lights out because no one there is afraid of the dark and they laugh at people who are. The Cat's Pajamas is a meeting place for gypsies who eat roaches. Gypsies, roaches, and ice cream men." Dead mothers, neglectful fathers and biased school administrations be damned, "Using mittens, boots, a scarf, and an umbrella, Madeleine turns herself into a warm, dry house" and sets out to claim her destiny.

However, times are rough at The Cat's Pajamas, a club in decline. Jack Lorca, the owner, faces citations for everything from excessive smoke to staying open past 2 a.m. to a drummer dousing his drum set in lighter fluid, adding up to a grand total of $30,000 that he and his friends don't have. If he doesn't keep his nose clean and pay the fine, he'll lose the club. His recent breakup with longtime girlfriend Louisa only compounds his misery, as does his strained relationship with his teenage son, Alex, with whom he has trouble relating because "They're making young people younger. Or else Lorca is older than he has ever been. He feels like he is slipping down a hill of ice."

Sarina Greene, Madeleine's art teacher, accepts an invitation to a holiday party knowing her old high school flame, Ben, will also attend. Sarina recently moved back to Philadelphia after divorcing her husband, Ben is married; still, Sarina can't help wishing for sparks to fly. When the two meet again, though, they fall right back into the pattern of mistaken assumptions and unspoken feelings that killed their high school romance before it could take flight. Can one long midnight walk to The Cat's Pajamas turn the one that got away into happily ever after?

Bertino's carefully crafted verbal cadence gives Philadelphia a thumping heartbeat that captures the feel of the jazz medium perfectly. Her characters' lives combine, diverge and riff off of each other like solos traded between musicians in a well-oiled jazz ensemble. Although setting a modern story around a jazz club may strike some readers as a strange choice, Bertino does an excellent job of showing that jazz and all its varied forms remain as vibrant and descriptive of the human experience today as ever. She makes the passage of musical tradition through families a recurring theme, even when acknowledging that not all family legacies are as pleasant: "We carry our ancestors in our names and sometimes we carry our ancestors through the sliding doors of emergency rooms and either way they are heavy, man, either way we can't escape." Balancing whimsy and reality is clearly one of Bertino's gifts; readers aren't often treated to dream sequences in which talking cockroaches admonish heroines about giving up too easily. Her instinct for pushing the boundaries of probability into the realm of the small miracle gives readers the sense that if something unforeseen but truly good could happen at a run-down jazz club on Christmas Eve, then it could happen at any moment if we just keep our eyes peeled. With characters who could have been picked out of any crowd, Bertino never puts any of the magic out of the reach of everyday people. Funny and wise, this first novel will leave readers with smiles on their faces and a song in their hearts--something with a little swing to it, naturally. --Jaclyn Fulwood

Crown, $25, hardcover, 9780804140232, August 5, 2014

Crown: 2am at the Cat's Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino

Marie-Helene Bertino: Under the Influence of Music

Marie-Helene Bertino is the author of the story collection Safe as Houses, winner of the 2012 Iowa Short Fiction Prize. She was an Emerging Writer Fellow at New York's Center for Fiction, and has spent six years as a writing instructor and an editor at One Story. Her stories have appeared in The Pushcart Prize Anthology XXXIII, the North American Review, the Mississippi ReviewInkwell, the Indiana Review and American Short Fiction, among others. Bertino grew up in Philadelphia, and currently lives in Brooklyn. We caught up with Bertino to talk with her about her debut novel, 2 A.M. at the Cat's Pajamas, Philadelphia and the power of music.

In 2 A.M. at the Cat's Pajamas, we hear about the heyday of a jazz club versus its more recent decline. What do you think the jazz medium's place is in the present day and the future?

I think that under the umbrella term of "jazz" there is something for everyone. If you think torch standards are boring, there's totally unboring avant-garde jazz. If you need relatable rhythm, there's be-bop or, one of my favorites, French gypsy jazz. All of that said, I'm happy to say that liking jazz is not a prerequisite to liking the book, because the book's real preoccupation is with the desire underneath the music: about wanting something, desperately. In Madeleine's case, it's about wanting to rise out of her circumstance to feel less shabby. In Sarina's case, it's about wanting to build a new life with herself as the hero. In Lorca's case, it's about wanting to be and failing to be a good father. The narrative would function in relatively the same way if it were a book about expert mechanics who love cars, though in that case, I would have had to do much more research. Jazz, as the young punk says toward the end of the book, is dead. Yet every day someone new gets turned on to John Coltrane and it changes his or her life. I can relate to Lorca in his "fading" field since, apparently, the novel, too, is dead, yet every day someone's life is forever altered by reading his/her first Virginia Woolf novel.

What made you decide to go with a rough-around-the-edges girl like Madeleine as a sympathetic character instead of the more standard adorable waif like her rival Clare Kelly?

The short answer is that girls like Madeleine are much more fun. The longer answer is that human nature is an endlessly surprising, complicated thing. No one is ever all one thing, as far as I've seen. For example, Clare Kelly is accolade-driven and lauded, but she has no talent or grace. In the real world, girls like that go very far, so I'm sure she'll be fine. Madeleine is poor with a wonky family, but has talent for days. Normally, one of those girls would become the "angel" in the story; faultless, pure, deserving. I don't find that kind of angel character represented in (human) nature. So I decided to undercut the usual conceit of perfect, pure orphan by giving Madeleine a living, wildly complicated father, and making her a smartass jerk to people who don't deserve it.

Your prose has an authentic jazz-like feel to it. How did you achieve that great cadence?

The cadence came out of 12 mostly fun years of trial and error. I consulted many books, most notably Horace Silver's and Hampton Hawes's biography and autobiography, respectively. I wrote music reviews and I took guitar lessons. I interviewed musicians. I wanted to avoid that kind of hep-cat, snappy cadence that people associate with bad poetry, and also the noir-ish bent that music can take in literature. Sonny's Blues by James Baldwin was one of my biggest inspirations and is my favorite story about music. As far as how it works craft-wise: I don't think the best way to write about music is by describing the sound, unless you know you've got a new way to do it. Saying that a horn sounds forceful isn't as effective as saying, "His horn sounded like a woman saying, 'Come here.' " That's the only guiding principal I can articulate. The rest was, really, following my ear and trusting my instincts. I never would have begun this book if I wasn't already in love with music and musicians, so I had somewhat of a head start.

You've set your novel in Philadelphia, your native city.

I was homesick. I never thought I would write about Philadelphia and then I moved away. This gave me the perspective, literally and figuratively, to see the city clearly. There is a specific personage that Philadelphia has. It is much maligned and much misunderstood, and I thought it was worth telling people about.

Most of the dilemmas and misunderstandings between your characters are ultimately resolved somehow through the influence of music. Do you think music is that powerful in real life?

No, I think it's more powerful. Writers can throw as many words at experiences as we want, but nothing cuts quicker to deep emotion than a piece of music.

What can you tell us about your next or current project?

All I can tell you is that it will be hewn out of love and fear, and written while eating an embarrassing number of carrot sticks and chocolate chip cookies. --Jaclyn Fulwood

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