. . . and the angels sang

Apr 30, 2007

This is a first-person narrative, told by Jon Simmons Bernier, a native of Alabama. Jon Bernier is a man of sixty, which seems young enough, but he has been through a lot.

John Sims Jeter is the older brother of novelist Sena Jeter Naslund, the author of the magnificent Ahab's Wife, and, most recently, Abundance: A Novel of Marie Antoinette.

The Jeters grew up in Birmingham, Sena attending Birmingham-Southern and Iowa while John went to Howard College and UAB.

John Jeter has spent his career as a mathematician and engineer, until recently. Jeter, now a resident of Huntsville, took up fiction writing after he retired in 2005: . . . and the angels sang is his first novel.

This is a first-person narrative, told by Jon Simmons Bernier, a native of Alabama. He was the son of the local doctor, as were John and Sena Jeter, and his mother was a talented musician. Jon Bernier is a man of sixty, which seems young enough, but he has been through a lot.

As a young man, Jon was infatuated with his mother's prize piano pupil, Elsbeth, known as Beth, Yearout. Beth was a prodigy and did in fact make it to the international concert stage. She and Jon become lovers, but about 1975 Beth marries an Italian, the villainous Count Santorni Tranaconti. This count owns chains of legitimate drugstores but is also in the illegal drug business, and Beth becomes dependent on drugs and, in effect, a prisoner of her husband.

Jon loses Beth to Count Tranaconti, and then, in 1979, to a fatal car wreck, or so it seems. All this occurs in Part I of the three main sections of the book, named, respectively, Music, Poetry, and Nature.

Jon, an engineer and consultant, moves to Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and in Part II, Poetry, meets and marries Helena, a Greek-American beauty. Helena is a teacher, like Jon a lover of verse, and deeply committed to the restoration of antique organs. They have an enviable marriage but Jon is an unlucky man and loses Helena, too.

Jon has his heart broken regularly, it is true, but the next extraordinary woman seems to come along pretty soon. In Part III, Nature, Jon is in a romantic and satisfying relationship with Gayle Farrell. They enjoy the outdoors and in fact walk the Appalachian Trail. But this relationship is doomed as well.

. . . and the angels sang would seem to be a novel of doomed romances, but there are hints of government conspiracy involving Beth's brother, Don, who seems to have been involved in some high-level national security operation. Questions arise What was the count really up to? Why is Don incarcerated in a VA hospital? Is Beth still alive? Jeter moves from romance to Tom Clancy thriller, but not very convincingly.

There is also the question of language. Jeter may have a fine ear for music (the first and last short sections of the book are Prelude and Reprise), but he has a poor ear for the English language. On a trip to Florida with Helena, noticing the ubiquitous construction, Jon ruminates, "We sensed we were seeing the beginning to the end of a soon to be much changed state of nature." Helena's Greek grandmother, the Yaya, is given the accent of an Italian organ grinder: "Thank-a-you for being Helena's doc-a-tor when she-sa need you. You a nice-a boy." Perhaps because Jeter has lived among technical manuals for decades, simple actions in the novel are over-described, as if the reader had never seen a person dial a phone.

This is a first novel and has its strengths. There is a plot, even if it is a little too far-fetched. The characters of Jon and his three women, Beth, Helena, and Gayle, are decently drawn. A more ruthless editing would have eliminated some repetitions and a keener editorial ear would have smoothed out some of the awkward language. But Jon Jeter will write another, and this is not at all a bad start.