Jim Bartley’s review of “Astral Projection” in the Globe and Mail

Jazzy novel is right on key

Summer of 1967, Miami, Florida. John Coltrane, sweet master of the tenor sax, is dead barely a month, and Goodwin Defoe is 15 and in possession of his first guitar. At his first music lesson in a cheesy suburban mall, he suggests that jazz is his calling. The afro-coifed (though white) teacher, Chuck, launches into a tenor rendition of Billie Holiday’s God Bless the Child. On the line, “Money, you got lots of friends,” Goodwin feels goose bumps run up the back of his neck: “A line that demanded ironic intonation he sang straight and naive, as if addressing a lover he hadn’t yet learned to hate.”

Goodwin’s father is a criminal lawyer by day and a committed drunk by night, alternately raking in the dough or flat broke. The marriage is violent and unraveling, his parents’ mutual loathing expressed in savage battles ending in brutal sex or plain assault.

School brings little escape. The local high school is mixed; black kids bused in from housing projects compete with whites from the affluent suburbs. Cops are posted in the halls to keep the simmer from rising to full boil. Guitar lessons offer Goodwin a respite. A skewed friendship grows between thirtyish Chuck and his prematurely jaded student.

Toronto writer Edward O’Connor, raised in Miami, unspools his exposition with steady assurance. He doesn’t demonstrate his imaginative power so much as invisibly spur the reader’s. As the story builds, insights and ironies are understated enough to make you feel you’ve come up with them yourself. When O’Connor describes people in a room, you feel the contained space and the warm or flaring (or explosive) things crowding it. These characters are wonderfully embodied.

Then there’s the music. Included with my review copy of Astral Projection was a promotional CD containing some of the classic jazz numbers mentioned in the text. It’s a testament to O’Connor’s skill that his descriptions of these performances are sometimes more effective than the pieces themselves.

The Miami race riots of 1968 bring an early faux-climax to the book—O’Connor’s one notable lapse. The dream-like passage is arresting but gratuitous, its blood-and-fire imagery an unneeded injection of thematic hyperbole. The real thematic centre of the story is a 40-page, finely observed portrait of male bonding, during a day of fishing, that transcends cliché with its subtle evoking of masculine affection. It becomes clear that Goodwin has never truly loved, until the arrival of the fractious and complex love he now has for Chuck, a teacher to whom he is now more a peer. O’Connor perfectly captures the erotic within the platonic, a coded sensuality between two young men who share love but would never give a thought to sharing a bed. In this, he sometimes suggests Hemingway—but fortunately (or wisely) doesn’t try to rival him.

O’Connor’s true climax is a taut knuckle-biter, darkly exhilarating and tragic, and rounded off with a denouement that brings just enough hint of redemption.

- Jim Bartley The Globe and Mail, April 13, 2002