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Mon February 13, 2006
The Magic Keys
The Magic Keys is a kind of love letter from Murray to his wife, to New York City fifty years ago, and to the music that he loves. Murray's last three novels and now The Magic Keys are centered around Scooter, a bright boy growing up in fictional Gasoline Point, Alabama, in north Mobile County.
By Don Noble
The Magic Keys is the fourth and probably final volume in Albert Murray?s loosely autobiographical fictional saga. Beginning with Train Whistle Guitar in 1974, through The Spyglass Tree and The Seven League Boots, Murray has been telling the story of Scooter, a bright boy growing up in fictional Gasoline Point, Alabama, in north Mobile County.
Murray, like Scooter, was identified early in grade school as a member of what W.E.B DuBois called ?the talented tenth,? the cream of America?s black youngsters, one of the ?very special ones? who would ?travel far and wide.? Murray did travel far and wide, both as a career Air Force officer and as a thinker.
Eighty-nine years old and living in Harlem with his wife and daughter, Murray is now, with the death of his friend Ralph Ellison, perhaps this country?s most important black public intellectual. Born in 1916, he was raised in Nokomis, Alabama and Mobile, graduated from the Mobile County Training School for Negroes and, with a scholarship, attended Tuskegee.
In The Magic Keys, Scooter is about twenty-five years old, newly and joyously married, living in Greenwich Village and attending graduate school in English at NYU. This novel, fiction laced through with nostalgia, is as much meditation as narrative. Murray tells the story of New York City in the forties.
In this novel, Scooter has some small encounters with Romare Bearden, the painter, called Roland Beasley, and with various members of the Duke Ellington orchestra, for which Scooter played bass for two years after college graduation.
Scooter runs into an acquaintance from college, called here Taft Edison. Edison, a fictionalized Ralph Ellison, is writing a complicated experimental novel, partly set at Tuskegee, and reads parts of it to Scooter. Edison wants to know whether he has realized the ?literary potential? of the ?down-home idiom.? He did, and Invisible Man was a triumph.
Scooter and Edison also talk a little politics. ?Edison was the one who made sure that I was alert to the so-called revolutionary political recruitment operating procedures that you were likely to encounter in New York City in those days.?
Ralph Ellison had been courted by the Communist Party, USA, and had escaped their clutches. Scooter, as an up-and-coming intellectual, might be ?especially useful in recruiting and/or indoctrinating the so-called masses.? Ellison/Edison need not have worried. Murray becomes not a communist but an independent thinker and existentialist, intoxicated by Hemingway and Malreaux, not Marx.
Murray has published volumes of essays, a collection of letters exchanged with Ralph Ellison, and is the co-author of the autobiography of Count Basie.
He is a student of blues and jazz, and his fiction is informed by music, with riffs and refrains and choruses. This is jazz on the page, and those who love it, really love it, but I found it stylistically intrusive at times. I am not hip. Repeated throughout are little stylistic bits like musical phrases: ?as he went on saying what he was saying . . . that was also when he began saying what he was to say.?
Altogether, I wish this book were a straight memoir, like Murray?s earlier book South to a Very Old Place. As it is, the best parts seem to me the sections in which Scooter is remembering, as from great old age, his most vital years. The Magic Keys is a kind of love letter from Murray to his wife, to New York City fifty years ago, and to the music that he loves. The blues are his lifelong metaphor.
Kurt Vonnegut, in his marvelous new book of essays, A Man without a Country, says: ?The wonderful writer Albert Murray . . . told me that during the era of slavery . . . the suicide rate per capita among slave owners was much higher than the suicide rate among slaves. . . . They could shoo away Old Man Suicide by playing and singing the Blues.?
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.