One of the most compelling elements of Americana is the periodic rise of a true polymath. By definition, a “polymath” is “a person of wide-ranging knowledge or learning” (thank you, Webster’s). In other words, that person is all over the place.
For example, there is legendary filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola. Did your mind just flash on a gallery of great movies like The Godfather and Apocalypse Now or his other iconic films? Probably so. Yet, Francis Ford Coppola is also a winemaker and a musician who can still be found in certain orchestral rows – playing his tuba!
One other example: Ezzard Mack Charles. Does that name ring a bell? It should.
Ezzard Charles was the Heavyweight Champ of the world between 1949-1951, but because he defeated Joe Louis, the sportswriters were indifferent to the new champ. However, for solace, Charles did not turn to drink or drugs. Instead, he’d don a suit and tie (a quiet, somewhat mystical man, Charles was always a gentleman) and he’d be found playing the stand-up bass with other jazzmen at Birdland, and elsewhere.
Novelist Edward Kelsey Moore (we’re not related) is also a polymath. He is a professional cellist who lives in Chicago, and his new novel is a joyous, lyrical, graceful, intelligent, funny and downright memorable romp. Yes, it’s that good.
The Supremes Sing the Happy Heartache Blues is not about Diana Ross’ Supremes, nor is it a Motown-related narrative. In this novel, a group of lifelong friends are known to each other (and in general) as “The Supremes.” Their presence is one of the many lively triumphs of character giving this novel its buoyancy.
A routine plot summary would do a disservice to this novel. Too many spoilers. And it’s impossible for such a summary to do justice to the book’s animated tone. Suffice to say that The Supremes Sing the Happy Heartache Blues (a first-rate sequel to Moore’s prior bestseller: The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat) is a musically-informed, bright, spirited foray into late-in-life love affairs amid all human foibles.
Here’s how Edward Kelsey Moore kick-starts his novel on page one: “It was a love song. At least it started out that way. The lyrics told the tale of a romance between a man and woman who made his life worth living. Being a blues song, it was also about how that woman repeatedly broke the man’s heart and then repaid his forgiving ways by bringing a world of suffering down on him. Here, in a church, this piece of music couldn’t have been further outside its natural habitat. But the tune’s lovely mournfulness echoed from the back wall to the baptismal pool and from the marble floor to the vaulted ceiling and settled in as if the forlorn cry had always been there.”
Phew! In that gloriously fat opening paragraph, a writer in complete control of his material is revealed. And between the lines you can ascertain a deep, appreciative awareness of particular details that have given African-American literature two of its key distinctions: the primacy of Blues, and gospel music within the Black church.
Immediately, the author then pivots and segues from the general to the particular with this flourish: “As the song continued and grew sadder with every line, I thought of my parents, Dora and Wilbur Jackson. The blues was Mama and Daddy’s music. Nearly every weekend of my childhood, they spent their evenings in our living room, listening to scratchy recordings of old-timey blues songs on the hi-fi. One of those might have been as sorrowful as the dirge ringing through the church, but I couldn’t recall hearing anything that touched this song for sheer misery.”
Then, just as deftly, the narrative comes to life as Moore draws character after character in abundant detail: “Mama preferred her blues on the cheerier and dirtier side—nasty tunes loaded with crude jokes about hot dogs, jelly rolls, and pink Cadillacs. The gloomy ballads, like this one, were Daddy’s favorites.” And so on.
The Supremes Sing the Happy Heartache Blues offers a unique, uplifting, humorous voice that spins a story of life’s chronic challenges and mysteries. The oxymoronic contradiction at the heart of the title (that “happy heartache”) aptly lets readers know that this is a tale made up of equal parts frustration and fulfillment.
As such, Edward Kelsey Moore (the son of Reverend Edward K. Moore, Sr.) has achieved something remarkable. On the one hand, his new novel is as rooted in the Black church ethos as the most famous novels by James Baldwin. And yet, there is also in Moore’s narrative a funnier, lighthearted mood and spirit that recalls the great musicality often displayed in stories and poems by Langston Hughes.
Few novels in these turbulent times can make us laugh and cry at the same time.
The Supremes Sing the Happy Heartache Blues does just that.
It’s a life-vivifying celebration.
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