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The Fisher King
by Paule Marshall

The Fisher King

Reviewed by Laura McGowan

A Different American in Paris

The name of the first chapter of Paule Marshall's latest novel, The Fisher King contains the phrase "Sodom and Gomorrah music" referring to jazz. Listeners today know that jazz is not riddled with sin as once thought, but members of older generations sometimes refuse to embrace this.

An example in this novel is one of two pivotal characters introduced in the first chapter. The grandmother whom the young children "couldn't understand" because of her accent (West Indies) is a woman named Ulene Payne, the mother of the late Sonny Rett Payne. She has a firm belief that jazz is nothing but filth. She yells at her tenants to turn off their "blasted radio" and leads the young narrator; also named Sonny, into a decadent parlor with a piano upon the music of J.S Bach sits.

Marshall is giving her readers the introduction to the central pinion of the novel, being jazz music and its repercussions. Does the family approve? Money is one problem; the reputation of the artists is another. However, upon reading the descriptions of the concerts in this book, one cannot help but think like Sonny senior, that is, seduced by music's sheer power over both the performer and the audience. It might even make one forget about family.

This vividly told story is filled with as much reference to jazz as an evening with Gershwin and as much revelation of the pain and expression behind its performance as a short story by Richard Wright (i.e. Sonny's Blues). It is about the strength that familial bonds sometimes lack, though it ultimately shows that there is nothing stronger than one's own sense of kinship and its universal importance.

It might be coincidental that the main characters are both named Sonny, one being Sonny the elder and the other his grandson. Why Marshall would choose a boy as the main output of omniscience and not Payne himself becomes all but too clear. Little Sonny, especially when around adults makes keen observations of adults flaws and offers the curiosity and honesty a young narrator can.

Conversely, Sonny senior has been eliminated from the active story, presented only as a memory of all involved. Who is involved? Sonny Junior for one, who cannot help but marvel at him and admire the way the adults talk about him (so much talent, his name almost taboo) and the woman who raises him, a former lover from "around the block" named Hattie Carmichael who speaks horrible French as a personality quirk.

It might seem suspicious to have a former lover raise Sonny (especially in Paris, away from the rest of the family) but it can be compared to experiencing jazz, requiring the audience members to listen to the evocation the tune is aiming for, and listen for the story or tale about the artists' life. Perhaps it is a lover's complaint, a grievance or even an apology, but nonetheless a tale of conflict and resolution. Sonny Payne's tale is of exile from both his family's disapproval of his career path (recall the "Sodom and Gomorrah music") and America's racism against jazz and its players, mostly African-American at the time.

Young Sonny's tale, if he had one, would be more about protection and remaining true to the self. Whom is he protecting? His endless drawings of medieval castles drawn from his picture books are a hint. The fact that he draws himself in as a knight in full armor protecting something important is another. The title here comes into play. What is the sickened earth that the knight must rescue? What must be restored or reconciled? It is obviously the torn family that Sonny senior left upon his death.

Marshall does a brilliant job highlighting the themes, showing Edgar admit his guilt so that he finally buys his brothers' records after he was driving home "and there he was. Some jazz station out of Newark was featuring his music on an all-night tribute to him" (86). After listening and buying all his records at once, Edgar feels he must "make it up to him" as Hattie puts it by organizing a concert in his honor "after refusing to listen to him for decades" (86).

Hence, after Perceval honors his dead brother and absolves him of initially bad career choices and so asks for the Grail and the family is re-united. This fact makes young Sonny seem like a peripheral character, since he is not directly involved with the family problems that occurred several years before his birth but he is the one family member that chooses to not be ashamed of ever hearing about his grandfather that shares his blood and name. He is proud to be a knight outside of a beautiful castle.