America is knee-deep in wannabe novelists. I know, because I'm one of them, and so are most of my friends. So I understand all too well Benjamin Watson's frustrations with the world of traditional publishers, a world which refused to publish his first two novels and drove him to Xlibris, an online publisher who publishes work by unknown writers at the rate of about 20 new titles a month. Xlibris is a terrific idea--a new avenue for talented, unknown writers to get their work out to the public.
Black Wax, The Notorious Confession of Alexander Wokowski, is two-thirds coming of age story and one-third psychological thriller. Alexander spends the first 150 pages telling us how he grew up bereft of Mother (she left when he was four to join a religious cult), siblings (his only sister died in "a tragic bike accident... rain, slippery gravel, Chevy pickup"), and caring father ("I'm not saying he was cold, just distracted"). Alexander's only friend is his cousin, Nehemiah, and together they survive neighborhood bullies, dishwashing jobs, first loves, and a move to the big city, Philadelphia. Alexander's narrative voice is clear, and articulate but glib. He talks about his sexual conquests with language that sounds like a soft porn version of a letter to Penthouse.
In Philadelphia, young Alexander--an amateur jazz trumpeter--wangles a chance to sit in with a trio of middle-aged black jazz musicians. Alexander so impresses these seasoned players that they invite him to sit in weekly, and his unformed life is magically transformed. Unfortunately, he is transformed into only a callow, pussy-chasing, 20-year-old who happens to have a weekly trumpet gig with a jazz cover band. The scene in which Alexander proves himself a competent trumpet player beautifully expresses the author's love of Miles Davis's album Kind of Blue without ever convincing this reader that anything remotely like this scene could ever happen.
With the entrance of a character named Madelaine, Black Wax morphs into a psychological thriller. Madelaine, we discover, has MPD, the postmodern writer's version of amnesia, a literary device which allows characters to behave in ways that are completely unrealistic, saving the writer endless hours of toil developing character or dreaming up a realistic plot. Madelaine is about as predictable as the average yahoo who shows up on Jerry Springer.
The problem with this novel is that it is a callow book about a callow young man. With a carefully considered rewrite, the character of Alexander might afford readers the chance to see something deeper--a social comment, a psychological comment, anything that might connect the particulars of Alexander's experience to larger themes.
Instead we get a narrative voice so cocksure, so immune to any species of self-doubt, that there is no opening in this novel for a reader to bring their own experience, feelings, or insight to bear. Whatever chance Alexander has to learn something about life is completely undercut by Madelaine, whose psychological malady becomes the convenient scapegoat for Alexander's woes. Alexander never begins to come to terms with his own complicity in the tragedy of Madelaine's life. Nor are we given any sense of how the telling of this tale might have changed its narrator, let alone its author.