Intermission, by Owen Martell, William Heinemann, RRP£12.99, 192 pages
On June 25 1961, the Bill Evans Trio played at the Village Vanguard club in Manhattan. With Evans on piano, Scott LaFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums, the group was at its peak, and the performance yielded one of the great live jazz recordings. But just 10 days later LaFaro was killed in a car crash and a devastated Evans retreated from the public eye.
In Intermission, Welsh author Owen Martell takes this true story and weaves it into a delicate and affecting work of fiction. Focusing on the period immediately following LaFaro’s death, Martell writes from the perspectives of Bill’s gentle brother Harry, his wistful mother Mary and his gruff father Harry Sr, as they try to assuage his grief by swaddling him in domestic normality. A brief coda centres on Bill himself, and follows his tentative emergence from the family’s embrace.
Set largely within the confines of Harry’s New York apartment and the parental home in Florida, the novel features little incident or dialogue.
Martell’s oblique approach is signalled in the epigraph, a quotation from Miles Davis: “Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there.” This is a book whose drama and pathos derive largely from what goes unsaid. LaFaro’s accident takes place offstage, and later developments – Harry committed suicide in 1979; Bill, weakened by years of drug abuse, died in 1980 – are subtly foreshadowed.
Many scenes are marked by stillness and a certain working-class reticence: Bill and his brother sit together at the dinner table, “acquiescing to the silence as if to an advancing enemy”; Bill and Harry Sr engage in a tense, “wordless” round of golf. It is through little gestures – a “friendly and complicit” glance; a “half-hearted smile” – that we discern the depths of Bill’s sorrow and his loved ones’ helplessness in the face of it.
The novel is set soon after the publication of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957), which famously imitated the flowing rhythms of jazz. Martell rejects that style, perhaps in tacit acknowledgement that the nature of music will not be captured in language. His measured prose occasionally seems staid but he writes with elegant precision.
As Harry Sr pauses to reflect on the inexorable passage of time, Martell writes: “He didn’t always pay it particular attention but there it was all the same, in the way everything remade itself as present, in flickering permanence, like television.”
Martell has previously written two novels in Welsh and Intermission is an impressive English-language debut, a deft and sensitive depiction of a family shadowed by loss.