The Page 99 Test: Joe Milazzo & Crepuscule W/ Nellie
“Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you.” ―Ford Madox Ford
We’re standing outside a pawnshop, probably somewhere in Midtown or even Lower Manhattan. The year is 1955, autumn. We’re in the company of John, a “minor character” who may or may not be a fictionalized John Coltrane. And, for reasons which are a bit obscure to even himself, he’s looking to hock his saxophone. John seems to believe that, in order to become the kind of musician his new mentor Thelonious Monk wants him to be, he, paradoxically, must give up making music altogether and learn “how to play” by testing himself against some other obsession. Or, as he (mis-)understands Monk’s oblique advice, some addiction. By page ninety-nine, John is beginning to have doubts about his decision:
John himself was not certain that, given the perspective, he himself would not fail to find something chuckle-worthy in the wriggling and humiliation of having to bid for the pleasure of having some avaricious guido revise your notions of value while need crawled up your calf, then your thigh, wrapped its feelers around your vertebrae, squeezing with a smothering gusto, and you had to stand there, cool, poised-like, under no circumstances, my son, flailing at your back or allowing St. Vitus to shepherd the footloose of your invaded leg.
John, who is Black, is also spooked by the hovering affability of a New York City patrolman. That police presence only reinforces John’s sense that he’s swimming too far out into illicitness, and that this individual is less lifeguard than spectator.
And the cop was still inside. John could not decide from his haphazard posture whether he too was waiting to subject himself to a deal. Or whether this public servant considered the stacked negotiations, small people trying to eke some advantage out of their desperation, a usual entertainment.
John is so distracted, in fact, that he is of little help to the reader in discerning the real villain in this scene. John is waiting his turn, and ahead of him is an individual looking to unload some luggage. That individual bears a disquieting and—were we allowed to look through John’s eyes and not his paranoia—striking resemblance to a character whose point-of-view has been revealed to us earlier in the novel: Frank, the Baroness Pannonica De Koenigswarter’s footman. John may not know his intentions very well, but Frank seems to be in full possession of his, even though he is careful to keep them obscure to the rest of the novel’s characters.
Mr. More-Salt-Tan-Pepper had taken back his bags. John wondered if the handles were bum, too; his predecessor carried them as if there were simply boxes, laid faceup in the cradle of his shirtsleeves. Why didn’t he just put the smaller one inside of the big one? However much his dignity quivered in his chin, the man’s knees did not give in to flexion. John allowed himself to be allowed to pass. A sharp odor, a funk, curtained the doorway. John thought he knew it, wet like baloney, dry like boiled-over coffee, and as gasoline-y as the greasiest ink.
In the pages and interactions that follow, John’s dignity is going to be tested as well. It will flinch, and it will stumble. But it will somehow survive. Crepuscule W/ Nellie is a novel, that not unlike John, or Frank, or even its titular character, Thelonious’ wife Nellie Monk, tries to do and are suspended in being too busy about too much: the African-American experience in the 20th Century; jazz and all that its history of American hybridity entails; what it means to be a caretaker (or care-giver); what it means to be creative; the endless variations we spin on our capacity for infidelity; the structural implications of perception itself; and, of course, more. Page ninety-nine is perhaps most representative of the novel in that it simultaneously looks through and reflects upon itself.
John picked up his horn and pulled his neck strap from its bell. He could not decide if he wanted to saddle up. Better a rosary, a blessed throat. If you want to sing, man, you can’t just play. Toys are for putting away. Scoffing at the fortune that might have had him make that fne, John turned and saw the flap of the counterman’s signal prevail upon him from between the shadowed, burnished S and H in the promissory notions painted on the shop’s window.
Like every other page of Crepuscule W/ Nellie, this one is haunted by artistic ambition, the fervor of interpretation, and the promise of resolution held out by what we call “theme.” John enters the pawnshop to begin his transaction, but he’s wary of the typewriters, and he believes he can hear them at work even as they sit idle on the shelves inside.
He heard the typewriters amplify their hush. They just had to hear this.
Hear what? Chords, melodies and syncopations? The private music of John’s thoughts? What’s about to transpire, regardless of whether those events actually move the plot forward? Gossip is good for plots, even subplots (and, on page ninety-nine, it remains to be determined just how instrumental John’s story will be to Crepuscule W/ Nellie’s greater progression). Because their ears are human, typewriters distort even as they record. In the words of a Great American Songbook standard that Monk himself never rearranged: “If they asked me / I could write a book.”
Joe Milazzo is a writer, editor, educator, and designer. He is the author of the novel Crepuscule W/ Nellie (Jaded Ibis Press) and The Habiliments (Apostrophe Books), a volume of poetry. His writings have appeared in Black Clock, Black Warrior Review, BOMB, The Collagist, Drunken Boat, Tammy, and elsewhere. He co-edits the online interdisciplinary arts journal [out of nothing], is a Contributing Editor at Entropy, curates the Other People’s Poetry reading series, and is also the proprietor of Imipolex Press. Joe lives and works in Dallas, Texas, and his virtual location is joe-milazzo.com.