Viper’s Dream by Jake Lamar – Blogtour

This novel just drips atmosphere – of two specific types!

First there is Harlem in the 1930s – A contained world within New York City that is as complete in itself as in Chester Himes’ wonderful novels from the late 1950s (which begin with A Rage in Harlem reviewed here).

Secondly, there is the world of jazz – bebop to be precise – in the early 1960s. Many real people from this world appear as characters in Viper’s Dream. The most important of whom is Nica – the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter – a daughter of the Rothschild family who abandoned her Baron diplomat husband for jazz, and specifically pianist and composer Thelonius Monk; but many celebrated musicians pass through the novel’s pages.

Let me just say that as a long-term Himes and Monk devotee – this novel spoke volumes to me!

We begin in November 1961 in Nica’s house in New Jersey with its views overlooking the Hudson back to NYC.

‘Tell me, Viper,’ the Baroness asked, ‘what are your three wishes?’

This is how we first meet Clyde Morton, aka the Viper. Sitting drinking awaiting his doom in Nica’s house along with all the jazzmen and more than a hundred cats (real cats, not jazz cats!). As I later found out when I read Hannah Rothschild’s memoir/biography of her great-aunt, writing down three wishes was something Nica got all her friends to do, she collected the answers.

Meanwhile Viper knows he’s on borrowed time. The detective who’s in his pocket gave him three hours to run after he rings in a dead body in Yolanda ‘Yo-Yo’ DeVray’s apartment. Instead he let Nica and Monk pick him up and take him to the ‘cathouse’, all the while Monk is ‘glowering benignly’. (Just love that phrase).

Of course this is by way of prologue. We’re hooked wanting to know how Viper reached this dark place, and Lamar takes us back to his arrival in New York twenty-five years before, fresh from Alabama with his horn, having abandoned his weeping girlfriend on the station platform. Clyde believed he could be a jazz musician, only to find out that his skills were lacking after auditioning for Pork Chop Bradley. Bradley though takes pity on him, taking him up on the roof to show him Harlem from above, and to introduce him to ‘Mary Warner’. Pork Chop also gives him his nickname, from the ‘sssss’ noise he makes when he takes a toke, calling him ‘a natural born viper’.

Clyde is keen, and Pork Chop introduces him to Mr O – Abraham Orlinsky, the Jewish owner of the night club, and top man in a large marijuana empire running out the back of a barbershop. Clyde makes himself useful, and learns a lot from Mr O who uses the young man as his body man. Mr O asks him a question.

‘Is it more important for a leader to be loved or feared? What do you say, Clyde?’

‘Both, ‘ Clyde said.

Mr O grinned. ‘Machiavelli says it’s best to be both. That’s what ever leader wants. But it rarely happens. Almost never.’

Years later, Clyde Morton would consider this the happiest time of his life. He hadn’t started selling loco weed himself yet. He hadn’t met Yolanda. He hadn’t killed anyone. Sometimes, back in those days, he felt his main job was listening to Mr O.

We now know some more of what to expect. After working for Mr O as his enforcer for some time, Clyde will take over the marijuana network. His reputation proceeds him and business is good and not violent for the most part. Viper is becoming ‘THE Viper’. He meets Yolanda at Mr O’s house where she is working as a maid until she reaches eighteen. There is an instant spark between them, and their relationship over the decades will be intense and very complex – she is the only woman for him, yet remains unobtainable most of the time. We know that it’ll end in murder, whose exactly I cannot say.

The one thing Mr O really taught Viper was not to mess with heroin, and Viper stays true to that, never adding that junk to his business and dropping anyone in their network caught with it as a sideline. They can see the mess it makes of peoples’ lives, Charlie Parker being a case in hand. The bebop sax player actually died of an overdose in Nica’s apartment – he was in his thirties – the coroner said his body resembled a sixty-year-old. Lamar cleverly builds in atmosphere from those real jazz legends.

As we go through Viper’s lifestory, we occasionally pop back to that night in 1961 throughout the novel, until it catches up with itself. Viper’s world really starts to get tricky once he hires a new sidekick – one Randall ‘Country’ Johnson from Kansa City, who persuades Viper that he hates heroin having seen what it did to his daddy. Country is brutal in a way that Viper never was, he’ll only be feared, but he does introduce rock’n’roll acts to revitalise the nightclub, bringing a different kind of audience to Harlem now that jazz is beginning to lose its way as heroin takes control. Secrets will emerge to lead up to the murder at Yolanda’s as the narrative comes full circle.

This novel is many things: a jazz-noir mystery, a romance that is more off than on, and a love story to that classic period of jazz featuring as supporting acts people who were part of it. Lamar effectively makes himself the narrator, telling his melancholy but not humour-free story about a gangster we end up caring about, capturing the changing times and dialogue perfectly.

Lamar, an American in Paris, has done his homework on the bebop musicians and the Baroness Nica, I can’t fault the facts and the myth about Charlie Parker’s death built into the narrative. He has also written several previous novels previously published first translated into French, and it would be wonderful if the English originals were reprinted, as I’d love to get my hands on them. The quality of the writing in Viper’s Dream is just superb, and it’s possibly the best thing I’ve read all year! I went straight off to listen to some Thelonius Monk afterwards, and to find my copy of the ‘Nica’ biography.

Source: Review copy – thank you. No Exit Press paperback original, 192 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)

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