FAT MAN BLUES. Wow! This Novel Walks The Walk and Talks The Talk.
—Join A British-accented White Guy On His Pilgrimage Back In Time
To The Mississippi Delta Blues of the 1930s South
I once spent most of a summer having a major mid-life meltdown in a blue rubber pool in a cow pasture in rural South Carolina. I was trying to adjust to the place and to myself. I floated around and around with a Cuba Libre balanced on my forehead. Buzzards circled up above.
Hard times required hard music.
I went with Led Zeppelin—a long-lost CD, playing it loud enough to be heard far across fields all the way out to the road as if baring my soul to the world through a hard edged sound inspired by and even stolen from blues greats such as Muddy Waters, Blind Willie Johnson, Willie Dixon, and others.
The blues are sadness. The blues are depression. The blues are pain.
In Fat Man Blues, the novel by Englishman Richard Wall, the blues also are a pilgrimage, a strange and lifeful dream. Bagger Vance but not golf. The Wizard of Oz but a protagonist named Hobo John, not Dorothy, and the Mississippi Delta instead of a yellow brick road.
Hobo John is a Brit on a mission to seek out the roots of blues, its people and places, its spirit and meaning. He meets a mysterious and somewhat shady character named Fat Man who offers to show him the real blues of the 1930s. It’ll involve time travel. It’ll involve what seems like a deal with the devil. If, here, your mind has jumped to Robert Johnson’s Cross Roads Blues—said to be about trading his soul to the Devil in exchange for the ability to play and sing blues—you’re going to get optimum ROI from Fat Man Blues.
In addition to Bagger Vance and Wizard of Oz, Fat Man Blues feels like the Disney ride Pirates of the Caribbean. Only, instead of Colonial Caribbean, it’s the 1930s South. Instead of pirates, it’s blues musicians. Instead of the jail where a tail-wagging dog holds the key to freedom, it’s a succession of dimly-lit, smoke filled shacks selling rotgut whisky where men and women take blowing off steam to the far extreme: gambling, fighting, and screwing to wide open blues music performed by the best of the best.
When the ride begins, there’s no turning back.
Wall captures blues culture as it genuinely was. Tough times lived by tough people who somehow found in that hardship the right chords, words, and voice to give a truthful, meaningful accounting of the human spirit under strife. Blues is perseverance. Blue celebrates survival.
I think of the blues as like a river shaped by the conditions around it, made to be a certain way because of what happens—the lay of the land, the obstacles set in its path.
The river is sometimes easy. The river is sometimes a killer. The river is life. Blues is life.
It’s all there in Fat Man Blues as a British-accented white guy tags along with his “negro” guides—sometimes drifting lazily along, other times holding on for dear life—through the bleak and desperate conditions of an oppressed people so hugely different than his own in the UK. I suspect Fat Man Blues wouldn’t be as captivating were it an American on that trip instead. It’s as if only a Brit could so honestly straddle the fence between circumstances. White and Black.
I will say too that Fat Man Blues hits exactly the right notes in its balance between authenticity and mysticism. For instance, bringing together well-known and little-known artists such as Edward James “Son” House, Jr., Ma Rainey, and even Peg Leg Sam (he grew up near where I live now) in combination with touches of magical realism, a true thing of the South found in our voodoo, haints, and swamp monsters. I’m not going to tell you what supernatural things take place—only that they are surprisingly realistic. No, no spoilers here. You’ll need to make a pilgrimage of your own.
Do what I did—take a copy of Fat Man Blues out to a screened porch late at night while the woods are rustling and you can almost hear a certain wailing in the distance.
Howling Wolf, perhaps. Or David “Honey Boy” Edwards. Pink Anderson maybe.
They are out there still. All around us.