Major's lastest novel sings the 'Dirty Bird Blues'

September 22, 1996
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

Clarence Major, UC Davis professor of English, likes to adopt different voices in his novels. In "Such Was the Season" he spoke in the voice of an elderly black woman. In "Painted Turtle" he adopted the point of view of a young Native American woman.

In his latest novel, "Dirty Bird Blues," he writes in the voice of a 25-year-old blues musician. This is a tough, gritty novel that traces the progression of Manfred Banks down the nearly hopeless road of alcoholism. The time is just after World War II. The place is the South Side of Chicago.

Banks knows he's jeopardizing his marriage and the love of his wife and daughter, but the seductive pull of music, his male buddies, and Old Crow whiskey (also known as Dirty Bird) is nearly too much for him to resist. Like a good alcoholic, he decides to leave his troubles behind by moving from Chicago to Omaha. There he deals with the troubles of a new job and a racist boss. He misses his wife but seems to know that his attempts at reform are half-hearted and doomed to failure. The question is: Will he forsake his family and hit bottom or embrace his responsibilities? You'll have to read Major's book to find out what happens.

I asked Major where his idea for "Dirty Bird Blues" came from.

"It came out of my parents' generation," he said. "I tried to see if I could put into words and literary form some of that energy, some of that beauty and richness that I witnessed when I was growing up. (Manfred Banks) is of my parents' generation. I feel very close to that particular generation of character."

Major writes about Banks' inner conflict. The musician is very nearly completely self-centered, yet has a yearning desire to share his life, to have companionship. This implies compromise and Banks seems to be unable to take that step.

"He's deeply torn over those two issues," says Major. Banks therefore finds it very easy to spend time with his irresponsible buddy, Solly. They make music together and use music as a way to avoid growing up. These are not problems unique to post-war Chicago or black men.

"I hope the book speaks beyond its cultural trappings," said Major.

Major, who grew up in Chicago, said he spent six years researching the post-war period in the Midwest. He also listened to his large blues collection all over again, thinking about how to put the blues in literary terms.

He says the book did not stem directly from his two dictionaries of black slang, but the evidence that he's been studying black language for 25 years appears on every page. Major also is a painter and a reproduction of one of his works appears on the cover of "Dirty Bird Blues."

He earned is Ph.D. through the Union Institute in Ohio. The experimental program let him take classes and teach at a variety of colleges and universities from Howard to Sarah Lawrence. He spent 12 years at University of Colorado, Boulder, and moved to Davis in 1989. He teaches African-American literature and creative writing and writes and paints during his free time.

Why does each novel have a different voice?

"I like to try new things and the most challenging thing about writing fiction is selecting the right voice and point of view and developing the work, understanding the voice," he said. "I like to play with different voices, I think that's the most interesting part of creating fiction."

Major also has edited two anthologies of work by black writers - a collection of short stories and a collection of poetry.

"There is currently a renaissance in African-American literature many, many times bigger than the one that's so famous, the black renaissance of 1918 to 1929. Today we have more people in this country, better educated people, more readers, more books being published and more people writing. African-American writers are surfacing in huge huge numbers and how much will survive is open to question. Some will survive and some won't.

"I grew up reading Hemingway Faulkner, Richard Wright, Dos Passos, the usual American writers but before I discovered American writers I was reading French poets - Verlaine and Baudelaire - I picked up a copy of these poets, it was just a fluke - and they inspired me to start writing. From there I made a conscious effort to read French writers. Also, my mother used to read to us when we were little. We grew up with books and read our small library over and over. The pleasure of reading was there."

"Dirty Bird Blues" is available now in hardback from Mercury House ($22.95) and will be released in paperback next year by Putnam.

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