I’m editing this post already. Not because I have read the book again but because I had an exchange on social media with William Melvin Kelley’s daughter. How incredible is that?! And she offered such a fantastic insight into approaching the book that I asked her if she would mind if I quoted her in full. She agreed. What she says is absolutely brilliant and spot-on. So I’m thrilled to add it to this post.
‘ My father was excited when I started Ulysses because it was his favorite book. I got maybe 12 pages in—and it was a wrap. Dunfords tho… it’s not something you read once and understand. But it wasn’t intended to be. It’s meant to be read the way you’d listen to a sax solo by Charlie Parker or Lester Young. There’s a theme stated. And then there are riffs. Sometimes those riffs go WAY out, but they are always on beat, and the chords supporting the solo are ever present. You take flight… sometimes you’ll hear a phrase borrowed from another piece or song. It’ll make you laugh because you recognize it’s a joke. You continue listening and wondering where these notes will end up, and then you hear the piano or bass and realize “oh, we’re back at the bridge to the song.” Then maybe the drummer has a solo… but then the whole band comes back and brings the piece to a satisfying conclusion. Dunfords is like that. Over the past two years as I was helping prepare the illustrations for these new editions, I would just randomly read a chapter. And after awhile you begin to FEEL the meaning of what’s going on without needing to know EXACTLY what’s being said. It’s taken me 20 years to appreciate Dunfords 😂 and I grew up with the book. But it’s gotten to be my favorite.’
It was with a sense of sadness that I picked up this final novel of William Melvin Kelley. Why sadness? Because it’s the last. And whilst I know I can read them all again whenever I want there is that new jar of coffee feeling when you pick up a book by one of your favourite writers. I began this knowing that once I’ve read it there will be nothing new to read from “the lost giant of American literature“.
This is like nothing of Kelley’s I’ve read before. I guess the reader is prepared for what lies ahead to an extent by quotes from James Joyce and the title echoing a phrase from Finnegan’s Wake and I will confess now that sometimes I didn’t understand what he was writing. I found the best way to extract the meaning was to read the book aloud in the sequences containing, what I’ll call ‘creative vocabulary’! This vocabulary and intonation whilst redolent of James Joyce also reminded me of Stanley Unwin! The wordplay is astonishingly clever. It’s witty and incisive. I would’ve expected no less from Kelley. But I’d also have to say it’s a challenging and sometimes difficult read compared with Kelly’s previous works. But so fascinating and so creative. And I will confess I was trying to read and review it ready for publication day. But it’s a book to be re-read, savoured and lingered over. And that I will do. That being said there are elements in the early chapters of the novel that are the pure Kelley that I’ve grown to know and love in terms of themes, narrative style and story structure and characterisations. The sense of continuity that runs through all of Kelley’s works has characters such as Chig Dunford and Carlyle Bedlow making their appearance in this book too. In fact the story really looks at Chig’s rediscovery of himself as a black American and contrasts him with Carlyle.
At the moment it’s not my favourite Kelley book and I can’t believe I can even bring myself to write that about someone who I have on a pedestal! But I don’t believe it’s a book to be read and cast aside. I think it’s a book to be explored slowly and deliberately and the rewards will be immense. To quote Kelley ‘If You’re Woke,You Dig It’. I may even return to this review and update it in the future.
My thanks to Ana McLaughlin at riverrun for a gifted copy.