Of Song and Water Reviews
Donna Seaman’s Review in Booklist
Music and nearly magical evocations of a Midwest landscape shape Coulson’s debut, The Vanishing Moon (2004). In his second novel, he portrays a jazz guitarist with grievously injured hands and a complicated relationship with Lake Huron. A third-generation sailor, Coleman, down-and-out and divorced, struggles with his disability (the price of hubris) and tries to be a good father to his wise teenage daughter. Haunted by his rumrunner grandfather and volatile father, he has inherited his father’s boat, the Pequod, a clue to Coulson’s subtle riffing on Moby-Dick. Patterns of dark and light shift and morph like shadows on water as Coulson choreographs complicated relationships between Coleman, who is white, and black musicians, including his honorable teacher. Coulson’s complexly elegiac tale is, in part, a tribute to his mentor, poet and Great Lakes mariner Stephen Tudor. Love abandoned, violence sustained, guilt, grief, the transcendence of sailing and making music, all play in jazz-like counterpoint. Coulson’s rhapsodic novel progresses from harsh equations of black and white to an exaltation of color.
Matthew Tiffany’s Review in The Quarterly Conversation
Joseph Coulson’s second novel, Of Song and Water, concerns a jazz musician coming to endings: a career on the skids because of hands that can no longer make the chords he needs; a boat, falling apart and weighted with memories of his father, and of his father’s father before him (both men casting long shadows); a divorce; a former love he walked away from for his music; and a daughter preparing to leave for school.
All the ingredients are in place for a sprawling social novel, intertwining the changing face of race relations in the second half of the 20th century with the progression of the Moore family from illegal booze-running during Prohibition to financial success in a boating store, and finally back to a broken-down jazz musician who cannot escape his forebears and drives a delivery truck—a beer delivery truck—to make ends meet. In a sense Of Song and Water is this book, but Coulson’s writing doesn’t sprawl. It’s boiled down—the style of this work is more in line with the music his protagonist Coleman Moore plays: simple in presentation, a three piece group instead of Armstrong’s All Stars.
Throughout the novel Coulson leaves everything open to interpretation until, suddenly, he doesn’t, and we see why things are the way they are. It’s a device Coulson uses effectively and subtly. We are given confusing bits of information about Moore’s grandfather, H.M.—Havelock Moore, the aforementioned rum runner, a true life pirate with more than one secret hidden away. The narrative moves forward in time, with Coleman’s father telling him that H.M. “doesn’t have a face,” then back in time to H.M. as a young man, struggling with the end of Prohibition. We progress forward again to the dark resolution of a problem landlord who is harassing H.M.’s elderly, widowed mother. Moving back and forth in this way, only giving the reader bits and pieces of the whole story, is not a new idea, but Coulson does it like a master. Across movements forward and backward in both Coleman’s memory and within the stories found in those memories, one is never lost.
Because of this style, Coleman seems at times to know more than he should—How does he know what lies in H.M.’s heart and in his father’s heart? Yet as the narrative unfolds we learn how Coleman discovered what he knows: either by uncovering external information or by looking into his own heart, which is not so different from the hearts of those who came before him.
As the story travels among three generations of Moores we see young Jason Moore choosing to become Coleman Moore, a name that sounds more jazz-worthy to him. We see him studying with an elderly jazz legend who lives nearby—a black man, for whom Jason cuts grass—and paying for it when a group of Jason’s peers disapprove of him associating with blacks:
Schoolmates in bright white T-shirts come tearing down the street shouting and laughing. He can feel them gaining and knows that if he looks over his shoulder he’ll lose speed, but he can’t resist and his head begins turning and he sees a boy almost at his heels. He rounds the corner and spots the familiar fence and jumps over the closed gate but catches his foot and goes sprawling on the tiny front lawn—on the thick grass that should have been cut before now except that the rain made it impossible. He starts to get up when a boy pounces on his back and holds his face to the ground, cursing in his ear. He hears the voices of the other boys closing in and they fall on him, too, their fists pounding his rib cage and the back of his head, and all the boys yelling or screaming, ‘Nigger pile. Nigger Pile.’
At the bottom, he can’t breathe, already breathless from running, and he believes that he’ll suffocate, drown in the watery grass, and he feels a hot pressure building behind his eyes, his arms and legs pinned to the ground, when suddenly a tremendous blast, an explosion, blows everything into silence.
He looks up. The weight rolls off his body. On the porch steps is Otis with a shotgun aimed at heaven.
We see Coleman’s father, Dorian, shedding the trappings of his father’s legacy—transforming from a rum-runner to an extremely successful boating supply store owner—and how it leaves Coleman the son adrift; walled off from his family’s history, there’s nothing to turn back to when his jazz hands fail him. Coleman works at restoring his father’s boat, trying to find a new vocation. “Time drags or runs like water,” again and again, sprinkled throughout the text like signposts: the story struggles against time, relinquishes itself to the current, and then struggles again. Happy endings, when they come, are bittersweet—nothing is taken without something else being lost.
Which brings us back to the jazz. Either Coulson has played jazz or he is a very thorough researcher. The passages with Coleman watching others play, or taking the stage himself, are wonderful in their evocation of the mood of a performance. Moreover, the novel itself is pervaded with the feel of jazz. Like the best of the smoky, slow-burn works, Of Song and Water unfolds with deceptively simple writing, the meaning and feeling building up almost unnoticed. Characters move in and out of the main storyline like players moving forward to deliver a bass solo, a drum solo.
Flourishes, when they come, are small. Words are chosen carefully to build each idea and, in turn, the story; the overall effect is like Coleman’s music—understated, steady bass undercurrent, drum flourishes, and guitar work that, if you’re only partway listening, seems competent enough, but when you give yourself up to the story, let it settle around you, can change the colors in the room.
Donna Seaman’s Review in The Common Review
Great Lakes Blues
In the American Midwest, the presumptive pastoral calm and social conformity associated with the term is more myth than reality. Heartland weather is capricious and extreme. Temperatures abruptly shift, clouds boil up against clear skies, thuggish winds wreak havoc, storms rampage. And this meteorological drama is often matched by human turmoil, ensuring that the Heartland is a place registering harrowing confrontations and abrupt disorder.
Born in Detroit, Joseph Coulson is closely attuned to the region’s gently rolling land and chimerical sky, as well as its majestic Great Lakes. He also knows a thing or two about the cadences of an urban core ravaged by the divisions of race and class. A poet and playwright as well as a novelist, Coulson is a meticulous stylist who manages to align the tumultuous inner world of his characters with the sensuous outer world. The Vanishing Moon (2004), Coulson’s much praised debut novel, followed the lives of a Midwestern family coping with blindness and other tragedies: the Great Depression, World War II, the violence of the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the quandary of two brothers in love with the same woman, a gifted pianist. Coulson is also a musician—and the lyricism of his prose reflects that fact—and in this new novel, he writes of music and musicians with rare understanding.
Of Song and Water tells the story of a talented but burdened jazz guitarist. Coleman Moore, born Jason, is a third-generation Lake Huron sailor as well as a musician. He drives a beer truck, in pale imitation of his grandfather Havelock’s nervy and profitable escapades as a rumrunner who navigated the dark waters between Canada and Detroit. Coleman inherited his father’s sailboat, where he often takes refuge: drinking and brooding, docked in Humbug Marina. Not only doesn’t he sail anymore, he doesn’t play the guitar much, either. His hands are damaged, stiff and cramped. Sometimes the pain “grows like a rolling fire, waves of misery that pressure and pills cannot relieve.” The pain is in his heart, too, for he can barely stand to listen to music anymore—music reminds him of all that he has lost. Divorced, he tries to be a good father to his wise-beyond-her-years 17-year-old daughter, but he doesn’t make much money and he doesn’t have much to show for himself.
Coulson renders time fluid and circular, slipping from the present to the past without warning. In one paragraph, the reader is privy to Coleman’s thoughts as he climbs on board his father’s boat on a bitter winter night; the next paragraph skips back to his grandfather’s life. Toughened by the Great War and harboring a secret far more explosive than trafficking in contraband whiskey, Havelock goes legitimate, establishing Halyard & Mast Marine Supply in Bay City, near Saginaw, Michigan. Happiest while sailing alone on Lake Huron, Havelock names his son Dorian, which means “from the sea.” When Dorian finally acquires his own boat, one made of fiberglass rather than wood, his father condemns it as a “plastic tub,” and tells Dorian’s son, Jason, that a wooden boat “is a living thing because it’s made of living things. There’s no life in plastic. It’s empty. It’s blank—like a white whale.” Dorian christens his boat Pequod, and the reader becomes alert to allusions to Moby-Dick, a masterpiece not to be casually looted.
Coleman’s fraught family memories are spliced with memories of his initiation into music. Hired to cut a neighbor’s grass, young Jason is hooked from the instant he sees Otis Young’s guitar and picks it up without hesitation or permission. Somehow “he felt more like himself just holding it.” Otis, who once played with such greats as Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, and John Coltrane, recognizes a kindred spirit in the boy, and offers lessons. Otis is a haloed character; the reader can’t help but wonder if Coulson was thinking about his teacher and mentor, the poet Stephen Tudor, when he created Otis. The novel is dedicated to Tudor, the author of Haul-Out: New and Selected Poems and a devoted Great Lakes mariner. Tudor was lost on Lake Huron in 1994, a haunting death that may have inspired some of the incidents in this melancholy novel.
It turns out that Coleman spent his best years playing with a bassist named Brian—who would prove to be an extraordinarily valiant and generous friend—and a drummer named Tom. Their group, the CBT Trio, would garner praise for their “elegiac mood,” a phrase that perfectly describes the novel’s timbre. Of Song and Water emulates jazz in its fractured time, syncopated language, and rich variations on a theme. As Coleman thinks about Otis and his immeasurable influence, he remembers being hassled by other white boys for spending time with a black man. He also recalls his choice of Coleman for a stage name, one commonly associated with African Americans, and his fear that “any value or substance he had, any claim to authenticity, came from playing jazz with a black man. In the back of his mind, he wondered if he was really an imposter, a fraud.” But his enthrallment to music is genuine, his ambition immense. He chooses music over his relationship with Jennifer, and loses his one true love. And his hubris, combined with racial tensions, lead to his downfall at the site of his greatest triumphs, The Green Mill, Chicago’s legendary jazz club.
Coulson navigates a narrow channel between poetic fiction and melodrama, charting his course with a set of not always finely calibrated symbols and metaphors. The dialogue is as nimble and affecting as the virtuoso music of the jazz guitar masters that Coulson cites, from Wes Montgomery to Joe Pass. Coulson’s complicated characters are rendered with resonant detail, the gleanings of close and avid observation. He has a knack for creating intriguing female characters, including Coleman’s over-the-top landlady, a bossy and sexy evangelical who stands in sly counterpoint to a malevolent landlord who has the misfortune of meeting up with Havelock. Coleman himself, battered by booze, still manages to be at once morose and funny, absolutely determined to overcome his pain and exorcise his demons. He still hears his grandfather declaring, “A Moore never sinks,” a piece of pure bravado that both Havelock and Dorian rather horrifically disprove, but a mantra Coleman hopes will sustain him.
The thorny relationships Coulson choreographs in this book embody in provocative ways questions of power and social convention. Of particular notice is Brian’s immense kindness. He takes Coleman in and cares for him after his hands are brutally injured, generosity that proves the adage “No good deed goes unpunished” when bigoted neighbors make trouble, believing the friends are a racially mixed gay couple.
Coulson evokes the rapture of song and water, the transcendence found in playing music and sailing. His hero thinks, “Music was a fast-running stream, an unspoken prayer.” That’s what Coulson wants his fiction to be, a conduit to a higher power, a way to feel free, however fleetingly, from the weight of the self. Sailing, music, literature—each engenders connection and rises above it at the same time. For most of this many-fathomed novel, Coulson stays in the groove. When he falters and drifts, it’s because he’s trying too hard; the story line can feel contrived. He gets caught in the wake of Melville’s Pequod and all the splendor of Moby-Dick’s metaphors and moral calculus—not that it isn’t pleasurable to ponder Coulson’s variations on Melville’s themes, but such moments intrude on the spell he casts.
What of crippled Coleman Moore? He learns harsh lessons about the cost of ambition, and he discerns a strange and troubling truth: we inherit the moral failings and crimes of the generations who have gone before. Coleman “considers whether or not the sacrifice of his hands served as some sort of redemption, a strange rite of passage—a fated balancing of the scales.” Does such reasoning help? “I’ve paid for more than my crimes,” he says. “And no schedule of penance will restore my hands.” But Coleman can alleviate his loneliness and all the beautiful imagery Coulson has seeded throughout this story eventually blossoms in a shower of redemption.
Of Song and Water, a more tightly focused novel than Coulson’s first, derives its unique style from jazz and does a fine job examining the ways that social tensions exert pressure on individual lives not in terms of historic events, but as manifested in personal conflicts.
Emilie Grangeray’s Review in Le Monde
The Music of Memories
A harrowing drift, brilliantly staged by Joseph Coulson.
In the cabin of his boat, dry docked at a marina in Michigan, Coleman, 50 years old, remembers that his name was Jason, but that the name of the hero who roamed the seas searching for the Golden Fleece was too much of a burden. And that to escape the maritime dreams of his father and grandfather, he became a guitarist. But all this was before a jealous husband slammed a limousine door.
So, Jason-Coleman is beckoned by the past, particularly by his grandfather, Havelock, a man who, after dabbling in smuggling during prohibition, buried his secrets and his money in his boat and nautical supply store—a man who spent his life making lists, making sure that everything was where it was supposed to be, and who, at the death of his wife, pulled the trigger, leaving his son, Dorian, to liquidate the store and start his life elsewhere.
It is to escape these monsters of egotism, indifference, and solitude that the young Jason-Coleman feels the need, the desire, to be someone else. He uses his hands, today destroyed but previously made for the strings of a guitar, to escape his damned destiny. He makes a place and a name for himself in the world of Jazz, before making a mess of his life—the trio he had formed as well as his marriage.
Only Heather, his beloved daughter, escapes the shipwreck. Even though, much too often, he thinks she might be trying to save him, if not from loneliness, at least from “the bald realization that he’s a middle-aged failure.” Unsatisfied and ambitious, he has always feared that he is an impostor, and so he flees to save himself from drowning in the life of his ancestors, even if that means letting go of the people dearest to him, like Jennifer, his first love.
Already in The Vanishing Moon (Sabine Wespieser, 2005), Joseph Coulson conjured the destiny of an American working-class family over three generations. Here, the American novelist, poet, and playwright – born in Detroit in 1957 – strives to depict a broken man who, while time stands still, or on the contrary, flows like water, reminds us of tired dreams and buried glory. The power of this beautiful novel stems as much from the rich and poignant music that emanates from it, from its permanent ebb and flow between past and present, as from the tide of memories that recount the painful drift of one man.
(Translated by Manuela Jessel)
Olivier Mony’s Review in Journal Sud Ouest (Bordeaux)
Un homme à l’amer—A Man Adrift, on Bitter Waters
In Coulson’s writing is the sound of Chet Baker, just one of the jazzmen haunting this dark story.
Joseph Coulson’s second novel is a quest for the lost Eden: that of a jazz musician with shattered fingers who replays the score of a life populated by ghosts to reach new horizons.
To each their white whale. For Coleman Moore, an exhausted fifty, it could be a boat, or a boat in dry dock, or a guitar out of tune. Son and grandson of sailors, Coleman (who was also known as Jason, but that’s another story…) one day chose the smoky and no less uncertain horizons of jazz, blues, and be-bop clubs to those of ships and boats where his father and grandfather decided to end it. For this white man, who grew up in a black man’s world in Chicago, the choice will be his peers over his ancestors.
Coleman Moore, old sad-child, is the hero of Of Song and Water, Coulson’s second novel translated into French. It is a discovery that we owe to Sabine Wespieser who, like a bird building its nest stick by stick, is asserting herself as the shrewdest “head hunter” of the French publishing landscape. If a dialogue is begun throughout its pages, it is of course the one that unites the author to his reader, but it is also the way Coleman’s guitar responds to the double bass of his friend Brian, and it is also the free dialogue of Coulson and the music of Coleman, Ellington, and Chet Baker (even if links can be made in a strictly literary field, one is reminded of the first great novels of Russell Banks)—the dialogue is a free variation on an old standard, like those interpreted by the hero, “My Funny Valentine” or “Cry Me a River.”
Hope and Resolution
Joseph Coulson plays hide and seek with the slightly rancid romanticism of the night, of jazz, of more or less femmes-fatales and of lost men. He does it head on, without being a post-modern smart-aleck, and wins support by his power of incarnation and the strength of his poetic language (for that matter let us salute the beautiful translation by Judith Roze, which maintains the texts scansion and its flowing lyricism).
So Coleman Moore is beleaguered, like everyone, by a past that doesn’t pass: a woman who has left, a few betrayals, promises that weren’t kept—most notably those of the world. And the memory of two boats: his father’s, found adrift on a lake with no one on deck, and the ketch where his grandfather’s trajectory of bootlegger turned honest merchant ended with a voluntary death. Since he cannot bring himself to believe in an unlikely, and perhaps vain, resolution, Coleman never stops being what he hasn’t been since the day when a jealous man shattered his life: a musician, a man for whom black is a color, for whom dawn, even on pale mornings, is a horizon. A guy in a thousand pieces, whose dreams were the first to be reduced to smithereens, but who still believes in the initial unity. A stubborn man. A soulful man. A bastard. A son.
The American novel, born from the virgin dream of the pioneers, from a new world where the Immaculate Conception would be the norm, has never ceased to be, since Hawthorne and Melville. In Of Song and Water, which is less a family saga than the story of this beginning, a quest for Eden lost, Joseph Coulson and his pale hero have written one of the American novel’s major chapters.
(Translated by Manuela Jessel)
The Vanishing Moon Reviews
Philip Connors’ Review in The Nation
If the words “first novel” and “arrival of a major American Talent” appear on the front flap of a dust jacket, you can almost be sure that the picture on the back flap will depict some impossibly lovely product of good breeding and expert dentistry, a sloe-eyed or square-jawed recent graduate of one of the top-tier creative writing programs, with a face made up to hide the blemishes of acne scars not too distantly inflicted. Big-time publishing is now as enamored of youth as every other aspect of the culture, and aspiring writers seem to be losing their virginity at ever younger ages to an industry that came rather late to the realization that sex can sell mediocre books as well as it sells anything else.
It’s something of a surprise, then, to come upon two first novels written by balding guys in their 50s. In addition to this superficial similarity, both books explore the dislocations forced on families touched by tragedy during the Great Depression. Though neither Waterborne nor The Vanishing Moon is without flaws, each is an ambitious effort that heralds the arrival of an intriguing…talent.
Joseph Coulson’s The Vanishing Moon is a sadder, quieter and more affecting work. It follows a Midwestern family through three generations of failed ambition and romantic blunders, and at its best it explores human frailty with the simplicity and directness of haiku. Composed of four discrete sections, narrated in turn by different characters, the novel at times achieves the quiet beauty of William Maxwell’s finest work—generous, episodic, elegiac but not sentimental.
In the long first section, told in the voice of Stephen Tollman, Coulson seems to want to bring Faulkner to Ohio. Phil Tollman, Stephen’s older brother, arrives in the world with a smoldering rage at the death of his stillborn twin. The family lives in Cleveland until Stephen’s father loses his job at a radio repair shop at the onset of the Depression. They set up camp in a canvas tent in the woods, not far from a dark little shack occupied by an old man whom the children take to calling Wormwood. A haunting figure who dresses all in black. Wormwood watches the four Tollman kids from afar, focusing most intently on Margie, a pubescent nymph with the unselfconscious beauty of a Rust Belt Lolita. Mr. Tollman stands haplessly by while his wife slowly goes blind; the children roam the woods, amusing themselves with daydreams and games.
We’ve seen this show before, I’m afraid. It’s a simple game of either/or. Will Mr. Tollman cling with pathos and guilt to the wife he can’t afford to take to the eye doctor, or will his shame force him to abandon the family? Will Wormwood be revealed as a dark prince of cunning and violence, or a spooky but misunderstood saint? When Margie dies in ambiguous circumstances after a visit to Wormwood’s shack, I couldn’t help but feel a bit befuddled by the lack of vital details; only later is the reader directly told the truth of what happened, and the gap between the death and the confirmation of its cause feels like a narrative trick.
Coulson’s most convincing narrators are two post-adolescents who share the middle portion of the book. One of them, Katherine, tells of her affairs with the brothers Tollman—first with Stephen, and then, when he proves too dull for her tastes, with the darker and more dangerous Phil. This is one instance in which the sex does sell us something worth buying. Coulson’s treatment of youthful lust is erotic in the best sense of the word—a perfect blend of candor and discretion. Katherine, a talented pianist and great beauty, a communist with progressive parents, is the most alluring—in every sense of the word—character in the book.
Later, Phil’s son James takes the narrative baton. We’re now in 1960s Detroit. Phil and Stephen work at General Motors. Stephen, still mourning the loss of Katherine’s love, remains unmarried, while Phil rages drunkenly at the woman he married after leaving Katherine to join the army. Here Coulson connects his characters to a whole range of American subjects—World War II and Vietnam, fast cars and baseball, racial tensions and industrial decline—but he does it obliquely, as a backdrop to the family drama. “My father disliked the fact that his sons were musicians,” James says of the garage band he forms with his brother. “He believed that rock’n’roll led to muscle cars, loud stereo systems, strange politics, and general irresponsibility”—a sad development for a guy whose most passionate affair was with a communist piano player.
When James’s girlfriend begs him to accompany her to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, he begs off. Like many middle-class children of the time, James and his brother only caught the televised version of the revolution. In retellings of the 1960s—whether historical, personal or fictional—the story of kids like them has often been elided in favor of the colorful antics of the Yippees, or the fierce struggles of SNCC and SDS and the reactionaries who opposed them. Coulson brings a whole demographic—and the attitude—that ultimately triumphed by its example of self-absorbed passivity. Consider this, a passage that begins as a gentle hymn to first love and baseball:
I loved the smell of the ballpark, a sweet mix of dirt and grass and steamed hot dogs and beer. I loved the grit beneath my feet and the stickiness of the chairs. I loved the short left-field wall and the impossible depth of center field. I loved that Maria had fallen in love with me here and that I’d fallen in love with her. I loved the scent of her skin, the way she whistled, the way she walked and talked and watched. I loved the excitement of our bodies melding with the excitement of the game. I loved the way she kissed me when our team took the lead.
There were times at Tiger Stadium when we felt safe, when we felt a certain kind of hope for Detroit and for ourselves. Baseball, we knew, followed its own tragic cycles. Great players faded into bitter legends of injury and dissipation. Others betrayed the game itself or were betrayed by it. But in those days we ignored the changing seasons. Always we returned to the ballpark, the satisfying geometry of field, fence, and foul line. It stood as a bulwark against losses we could not imagine. Losses we could not understand. Somehow we felt that the world would make sense only as long as we stayed in our seats.
This subtle swivel between the personal and the apolitical is so deft you could be forgiven for missing it. We ignored the changing seasons. The world would make sense only as long as we stayed in our seats. The Tollman family, so entranced by familial dramas, so averse to public displays of passion and collective endeavor—at least outside a ballpark—lets the world go by without grabbing hold of it. Their tragedy is, in many ways, the tragedy of American life in the latter part of the twentieth century; we spend more time in our seats than ever.
After his early flirtation with elements of prairie gothic, Coulson serves up that tragedy without a hint of sermonizing. This is as real as realism gets.
Philip Connors is a writer in New York
Sidney Hyman’s Review, “Concealment and Interest,” in The Common Review
The distinction a great sage drew between make-believe secrets and real secrets is uniquely applicable to Joseph Coulson’s first novel, The Vanishing Moon. A make-believe secret, the sage said, depends on concealment, and it stirs interest only as long as its core is hidden. When the core is revealed, the secret loses its fascination – as in the case of a stage magician. Once the mechanics behind the trick become known, the act loses its magic.
The elements that make for a real secret, however, can be apparent to the naked eye. They can be seen by everyone, traced, turned inside out. Yet, the more closely they are examined, the more mysterious the source of the spell they cast, as in the case of Coulson’s novel. Start it, and you become unaware of the hours passing by while you read it. Finish it, and you silently wonder why you still care so much about a certain character in the novel whom you came to know and live with in your reading.
The things that are very clear about the structure of this book include the interplay between the fate and freedom of three generations of Tollmans – a working class family in Cleveland and Detroit – some of whose members pursue illusion that end in the shock of disillusions, while others pursue realistic hopes in defiance of the possibility that these hopes, in the end, will be snapped like matchwood. They also include the dynamic between the private lives of the Tollmans and the course of American economic, political, and cultural experience from the Great Depression to the aftermath of the Vietnam War. It is not quite accurate to call this a work of historical fiction; rather, Coulson has skillfully woven into the plot references to public events that seem designed to appeal in a personal way to readers; he has created benchmarks where the reader can locate him or herself in time and say, “Yes, I know that about Jessica, or Phil, or Stephen, because I was there.”
Other things are very clear. The transcendent figure in the novel is Jessica Tollman, the mother, who without whimpering or striking heroic poses, suffers the loss of two children, her home, her husband, and her eyesight – and whose grandchildren prefer not to visit her in a nursing home because she smells of “urine and disinfectant.” Jessica’s one reliable source of comfort throughout her adult life is Lethea Strong, a mulatto who acted as a midwife at the births of all the Tollman children. Among these children, the one who serves as the point of departure and return for much of the action in the novel is Phil, the oldest, whose animal charm and bright, hell’s bells bravura as a young man is overtaken later in life by cynicism, belligerence, and drunkenness.
There are several clear voices that touch and retouch the story from various perspectives, depending on the dictates of selective memories and views of their own roles as participants in the drama. The voices are those of Stephen, Phil’s restrained younger brother; Katherine Lennox, who matures into a celebrated jazz musician, but as a young woman was seduced and abandoned by Phil and loved but never attained by Stephen; and James, one of Phil’s sons and the carrier of a promise that his education could make him a fortunate mutant in the Tollman family cycle of pain.
What is the secret source of this novel’s power to haunt? Several suggestions, not answers, seem right. First as the author of three published books of poetry, Coulson brings to his narrative a mature poet’s respect for the integrity of words – where each word, in relationship to those next to it, is summoned to stand as one with the reality it is meant to describe, whether that reality is an emotion, an idea, a physical gesture. All this, applied to the characters, makes them so vascular and alive that if you were to cut into a page on which they appear you would half expect the page to bleed.
Second, Coulson has absorbed into himself the attitude of classical dramatists, who never denied their characters – even the most odious – the right to their own inconvenient humanity. In Coulson’s hands, you are led to hope that even the most broken characters will somehow make the right choices leading to their redemption, and you want to cry out to them, “For God’s sake! Wake up! Can’t you see where you are heading?”
Finally, one more suggestion applies to The Vanishing Moon – what Joseph Conrad had to say in The Mirror of the Sea; “There is something beyond – a higher point, a subtle and unmistakable touch of love and pride beyond mere skill; almost an inspiration which gives to all work that finish which is almost art – which is art.” So it is in this case. Coulson’s novel partakes of a real secret, in which, over time, key elements laid bare contribute to an aesthetic experience that accumulates – rather than loses – its power to evoke the reader’s wonder.
Sidney Hyman (1913-2016), speechwriter for John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy, was the author of The American President (Greenwood), The Lives of William Benton (University of Chicago Press) and The Aspen Idea(University of Oklahoma Press). Founding editor of the Aspen Quarterly, he was professor emeritus of jurisprudence at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Leyla Kokmen’s Review in Minneapolis City Pages, A-List
Consider, for a moment, the people around you. How would you look—who would you be—if your soul and character existed only through their eyes? In poet Joseph Coulson’s debut novel, The Vanishing Moon (Archipelago) this is the way we meet Phil Tollman—through a younger brother, an abandoned lover, and a teenage son. The Phil Tollman we see is at times adoring, brave, disillusioned, drunken, and belligerent; a melancholy figure defined by the choices he makes—and those he leaves unmade. With finely crafted characters and scenery, Coulson’s epic depicts the working-class world of Cleveland and Detroit, following the Tollman family from the Great Depression through World War II to the aftermath of the Vietnam War. The graceful prose tenderly builds a story of humanity and tragedy. In the Tollman’s world, reality can be as dark as a moonless sky, lit only by memories and dreams unrealized.
Donna Seaman’s Review in Booklist
The Tollman children — spitfire Phil, the eldest; musing Stephen, his shadow; charming but doomed Margie; and stuttering Myron — adore their lovely, competent mother and cannot forgive their lackluster father for allowing her to go blind. So destitute are they at the worst of the Great Depression that they end up living in a tent outside Cleveland’s city limits, where life is as brutal and sporadically transcendent as the moody Midwest’s meteorological extremes. Assured and purposeful, first-time novelist Coulson infuses each surprising and evocative moment with great feeling and mythic resonance as he leapfrogs forward in time, subtly tracing the impact of the Second World War, the civil rights movement, and the Vietnam War on his emotionally damaged characters. Shifting between Cleveland and Detroit, and among several points of view, including that of Katherine, a brilliant pianist with whom both Phil and Stephen fall madly in love, Coulson writes with surpassing clarity and dignity about grief, anger, sexual passion, the need for art, brotherly love, and the resilience of good women, creating a somberly beautiful family saga.
Doug Payne’s Review in The San Diego Union Tribune
Loss saturates Joseph Coulson’s new novel, The Vanishing Moon. This chronicle of three generations of a Midwestern working-class family opens in the Depression, with the Tollmans having had to leave their home in Cleveland and stay in a tent on the outskirts of town, and closes in the era of Nixon and Vietnam, with the sundering of brothers Stephen and Phil Tollman.
A tale punctuated by vanishing loved ones, desires and possibilities could become drearily repetitious, but Coulson’s richly-textured narrative abounds in passion and wonder. Loss may be catastrophic, but for Coulson it is never final. His real subject is not loss but the art of losing, the infinitely varied ways in which people try to live on in the wake of loss.
The Vanishing Moon offers a deliberately different portrayal of American working-class life. No strikes, no scenes of factory drudgery or tyrannical bosses, no urban slums: Instead, the focus is on familial relations, which Coulson develops with such complexity and density that the Tollmans are never reduced to symbolic pawns of an unjust system.
This unconventional emphasis is apparent in the novel’s opening. Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath may have led us to expect that we know what it’s like to be forced out of your home during the Depression, but nothing I have read prepared me for Coulson’s patient reimagining of the Tollmans’ life. Told in the voice of younger brother Stephen, growing up in a tent near the Chagrin River (no joke!) appears surprisingly similar to growing up elsewhere. There are adventures in the woods, odd jobs, snow angels, a crush on a grade school teacher, fiery brother Phil’s terrible revenge on the kids who tormented their speech-impaired little brother Myron, and a creepy old guy who lives in a shack near the river. Stephen’s recollection of winter illustrates the larger balance that Coulson strikes:
We ate summer vegetables and fruit that Mother canned in the fall, and we froze fish and venison, gifts from the Johnson farm, in a metal can outside the tent. Snow in a bucket kept milk and cheese cold. Sometimes, when the temperature rose just above freezing, the tent was almost cozy, except that my hands were never warm.
Coulson is particularly interested in the spiritual and emotional losses that follow from material deprivation. Mother’s blindness, Myron’s speech impediment and Phil’s eventual deafness correspond to a larger pattern of constricted possibility. Loss makes and unmakes each of Moon’s large cast of absorbing characters. The feckless father’s abandonment strengthens the bond between Stephen and Phil, the remaining men of the family, for instance, but it also sharpens their disagreements. Phil hates and dismisses the father, while Stephen lives in anticipation of his return. Some of Stephen’s most appealing traits are reinforced in reaction to such losses: He is the one who remembers, who cares, who makes an effort to maintain family ties as an adult.
At the same time, this posture proves debilitating. He loses his true love Katherine to his more intense brother Phil, one feels, because he has chosen to wait and remember he is ill-equipped to pursue his own desires in the present. He then waits for Katherine long after, to much the same effect.
At its best, The Vanishing Moon works by re-creation, taking a set of abstractly familiar stories and telling them with such vividness and emotional torque that they become new again. The entire second section, told by Katherine, a pianist who moves in communist circles but follows only the promptings of her heart, is of this order. Katherine’s electric intelligence is fascinating in its own right, and because she is in many respects Stephen’s opposite, her perceptions of the Tollmans consistently expose new facets.
I found the third section, told by Phil’s teenage son James in the Detroit of the 1960s and ’70s, authentic but not as fresh. The period references to rock bands and draft resistance and race riots are more familiar; more importantly, James resembles his decent, sensitive Uncle Stephen in temperament, and Phil’s story comes to dominate the whole. Phil’s decline into hardhearted fury, paranoia and alcoholism is convincing, but too much like a slow-motion train wreck to elicit much more than pity and, I suspect, too narrow to carry Coulson’s more ambitious commentary on this phase of U.S. history. The return of Stephen to narrate the final section is refreshing, not because the Tollmans’ problems are solved or Stephen’s scars are healed, but because he has achieved a rare kind of integrity, “ruined but unvanquished.”
Elizabeth Bishop wrote: “The art of losing’s not too hard to master.” Coulson’s novel is alive to the ironies of this promise. The Tollmans get entirely too much practice in the art, and their mastery sometimes exacerbates their pain. The Vanishing Moon saves their stories, in mourning and in celebration, with an art of remarkable poignancy.
Doug Payne teaches English at USD.
R.D. Pohl’s Review in The Buffalo News
Coulson’s Work Mirrors Struggles of the Working Class
“I live in the city where my brother and I grew up, where we made our choices, and choices were made for us,” laments the no-longer-young narrator of Joseph Coulson’s first novel, The Vanishing Moon, which will be published next month by New York City-based Archipelago Books. “I go to the old places to make peace with what happened there, but then memories take hold of me and I twist and turn my body, trying to keep the past at arm’s length, trying to shake it off, feeling a grip that is strong and absolute,” Coulson’s working class narrator Stephen Tollman relates. A literate, if unpublished, short story writer and chronicler of the Tollman family misfortunes from the depths of the Great Depression to the end of the 1970s, he has traded in the romantic dreams of his youth for the security of a job as an assembly line supervisor at a General Motors plant in Cleveland.
Novels about the struggles of working class American families are increasingly rare in the current literary marketplace, but Coulson — who lived in Buffalo while earning a Master’s degree in Writing and Poetics and a Ph.D. in American Literature at the University at Buffalo in the 1980s — has never been particularly constrained by literary fashion. In addition to three chapbooks of poetry, he has co-authored A Saloon at the Edge of the World, a full-length play (about William Faulkner and Raymond Chandler’s disagreement over how to adapt The Big Sleep as a screenplay) that was produced and staged in San Francisco in 1996. More recently, he has been Editorial Director, Chief of Staff, and Senior Editor of the Chicago-based Great Books Foundation, where he oversaw not only GBF’s publications, but also its community-based discussions of selected Great Books, including Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” which was the topic of a GBF-sponsored event here in Buffalo in 1999. As The Vanishing Moon (which has already been selected by Barnes & Noble Books for its “Discover Great New Writers” program) went to press this fall, Coulson was teaching American literature in Paris as sponsored by the University of Toronto.
Set against the backdrop of 20th century American politics and popular culture, the novel follows the tribulations of three generations of Tollmans — a Cleveland, Ohio family cast into poverty, homelessness, and personal tragedy during the Depression of the 1930s. As a consequence of sacrifices made and not made, of foolish and shortsighted decisions, the family’s dislocation permanently scars and alters all its descendants.
More particularly, the narrative focuses on the relationship of two brothers — Philip and Stephen — whose strikingly different responses to their father’s abandonment and the subsequent disintegration of the family leaves them full of inarticulate rage and mournful regret, respectively. Even as their lives and fortunes change in the relative prosperity following World War Two, their restiveness seems almost congenital.
By way of contrast, the novel introduces us to a succession of strong and fiercely independent women, including its most compelling narrative voice Katherine Lennox — a political activist turned jazz pianist who is beloved but unattainable by one brother, seduced and abandoned by the other. One evening a stranger in a tavern tells Stephen that the greatest talent of women in general is their “capacity to spend endless amounts of time with dull men. To spend it without being bored, or at least without minding that they are.” The comment echoes like a revelation to him, like an indictment of a still salvageable life.
For James Tollman, Philip’s youngest son and a college-bound intellectual in the making who narrates the Vietnam era portion of the novel, “Irony is the only faith in a fallen world,” but the house he inhabits is still ruled by retrograde emotions like guilt, fear, and self-loathing
Despite the use of multiple narrators and a protagonist — Philip Tollman — constructed entirely through the accounts of others, “The Vanishing Moon” opts for a traditionalist approach that will remind readers of classic authors like Steinbeck and Zola, or perhaps such contemporary masters of wounded male pride and self-doubt as Raymond Carver and Russell Banks.
Barnes & Noble’s Review from Discover Great New Writers
Epic, lyrical, and filled with filmic characters, The Vanishing Moon is an extraordinary portrait of a three generations in a 20th-century American family. Coulson’s three narrators provide readers with a deep understanding of each member of the Tollman clan, following them as time marches on and seminal events in American history unfold.
Opening in Cleveland at the advent of the Depression, Stephen, the first narrator, recounts the loss of his father’s job that forced his family’s move from their home to a tent with no electricity or running water. The second section, in the voice of a woman in whom Stephen holds a romantic interest, focuses on Stephen and his older brother as they become young men and set out into the world, falling in love and making choices that will define the rest of their lives. The third narrator, Stephen’s nephew, describes the two brothers as middle-aged men upon whom life has borne down.
Coulson unravels the story of the Tollmans with an acute understanding that one can never escape the past, that our minds are filled with “images that return to us again and again…forming a pool of doubt that swells over time and weighs heavily on what we think and feel.” The Tollman brothers, sadly, are unable to escape their past; neither, suggests Coulson in his remarkable debut, can we. (Winter/Spring 2004 Selection)
Lara Williams’ Review in ForeWord Magazine
This is the steel of working-class, Mid-Western America described by a poet. What the story lacks in hope is counteracted by the beauty of the author’s narrative, which captures a fine balance of collective suffering and individual bittersweet memory.
The story is a series of personal narratives, each describing the emotional knot of experience that holds three generations of the Tollman family together. Through one family’s experience, the book catalogues the salient historical events of twentieth-century America: The Depression, WWII, Vietnam, JFK’s assassination, the advent of the civil rights and Black Power movements.
This is Coulson’s first novel; it follows three published books of poetry and a play, A Saloon at the Edge of the World, which was produced in San Francisco.
The bleakness of the story resides in suffering without reward, most poignantly in the case of Jessica, the story’s matriarch, who loses two children, her home, her husband, and finally her sight. Her painfully sad life ends without fanfare. She is disdained by her class-conscious daughter-in-law, and her grandchildren prefer not to see her because she smells of “urine and disinfectant.”
Coulson’s narrative is poetic in both style and content. The youngest narrator, James, remarks how there were “no lilacs in the spring of 1968.” The author reinforces this motif: “April arrived like a car on fire. Television and magazines showed pictures of the dead: soldiers and civilians in Vietnam; Martin Luther King in Memphis. Not even the gardens along Lake Shore Drive had lilacs that year.” Describing The Great Depression, Coulson uses language and memory to soften a brutal reality: “Fear swept through Cleveland like a grass fire. Banks closed and soup kitchens opened. Small businesses collapsed in a flurry of pink slips.”
Hope appears towards the end of the novel with the youngest generation, in James’s narrative section as he tells of the end of the Vietnam War and his brother’s reprieve from the draft: “The poor were surrounded by friends. The air was empty of fear. No other news mattered.” It is a brief moment of bounty, but it nevertheless provides the reader with a glimmer of hope that James’s generation will not suffer so much as the last.
The different narrative perspectives, along with Coulson’s detailed social and historical referencing, give this story authenticity of character and context. The choice of multiple narrative voices also lends itself well to the subject matter in creating a kind of collective voice of working-class America.