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Joan Sullivan: Music of the moment: story of a mother and son

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From its pitch-perfect opening to its crescendo conclusion Jamie Fitzpatrick’s second novel is a ranging, honed exploration of the familial and artistic bonds that unite and divide, uplift and betray us. I think it’s also the first novel set in modern-day Gander — a town which itself is of course nothing but aviation industry-modern — very specifically around its airport, slip-sliding between its heyday as a jet set international hub and its post-9/11 presence. The chapters alternate between Carter, 47, with a decades-old legacy of his role in a ’90s indie band, now in a cycle for a possible metamorphosis and revival, and Joyce, his mother, who worked shifts as a flight agent at Gander Airport, now widowed and moved to an independent living facility, where her discursive frankness and mental ellipses are shimmying her up the ranks to increasing levels of care.

Joyce, too, was in a band, singer in a kind of classics combo that swung and boogied its post-Confederation way through Lodges and dances and corporate gigs. Both their perspectives allow for the impressions of the architecture and kinetics of musical performance. Carter, who bounced about career-wise post-band, is re-enrolling in academia, joining an archeological field team excavating plane wreckages, of which Gander has many, steeped in bogs and conspiracy theories and sometimes astonishing human loss. This brings in play with the layers of memory – and its retentive power. Carter is also obsessed with a certain French film, which anchors a pivotal moment and choice in his life – and a movie itself is a kind of memory, of the actors’ vitality and effort.

 

The chapters alternate between Carter, 47, with a decades-old legacy of his role in a ’90s indie band, now in a cycle for a possible metamorphosis and revival, and Joyce, his mother, who worked shifts as a flight agent at Gander Airport, now widowed and moved to an independent living facility, where her discursive frankness and mental ellipses are shimmying her up the ranks to increasing levels of care.

Carter’s band was called Infinite Yes, and its lead singer Leah was his muse, his wife, and now his terminally ill ex. He is now remarried, to Isabelle, and they have a four-year-old son, Sam. Carter no longer considers himself a musician. But he has told Isabelle how he and Leah “lived as distracted aesthetics. Minimal eaters. Occasional teetotalers. Night owls. Income-tax truants. They were kids, so devoted to the vitality of experience that they overdressed for shows, so they might more readily drip with sweat.”

Joyce’s connection with music was different, but also integral. After she left, fled really, her home in Cape St. Rose for Gander with its promise of jobs and prospects, she was recruited to front a semi-professional troupe. “That Old Black Magic,” that type of thing. Everybody smokes and drinks gin. The young women sometimes take the $10 flight to St. John’s to buy new dresses. Joyce can sing, and with practice begins to really master her delivery. She’s also, men tell her, movie-star gorgeous. She does not evaluate herself the same way; as a fundamentally serious person she governs herself and takes interesting men seriously.

Carter does not romanticize his past. Infinite Yes had one good run of several months when the band paid enough to keep them from needing second jobs, and were bringing their music to a new level. But true success didn’t happen, the band fell apart and its members fell away, often landing in quite dismal spots. But Carter does remember what it meant to eat, sleep, breath, and completely live to make music, to use everything in life as fuel, grist for that mill. It was selfish and young but authentic.

The juxtaposition between their perspectives allows for a densely rich interplay. It also gives Fitzpatrick a wide field for what he shows and what he tells. We don’t see, for example, when Joyce met Carter’s father, Art, but the befores and afters of that:

“Art Carter measured his life by the blurred acceleration of the twentieth century, from the fish-smelling schoolhouse to the control tower. He had been born into a world where it seemed nothing would ever change. Then the future was invented, and once he caught its slipstream he was pulled along to the end.”

It’s really intriguing what Fitzpatrick keeps offstage. There’s a glimpse of a compromising, troubling sexual encounter. Quick exchanges on the rights and wrongs of the ownership of music. And the searchings for the metal wrecks dissipating in the advancing bog.

For all the weight of illness, aging, and fractured aircraft, the novel, as befits its aviation environment, has lift and propulsion. The narrative throbs and flows back and forth to the title, but does music ever come to an end? Music resonates. Notes soar.

 

Joan Sullivan is editor of Newfoundland Quarterly magazine. She reviews both fiction and non-fiction for The Telegram.

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