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Book Reviews

From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate: Volumes 1 to 3

By Published: January 16, 2011
It's important to point out that along with Mackey's impressive erudition and linguistic facility, he creates characters who are very real and loveable. N, Penguin, Lambert, Aunt Nancy, Djamilaa, Drennette and the mysterious Angel of Dust are at the heart of what makes this novel so compelling. These are artists with rich inner worlds, people for whom art and music and love are matters of upmost importance. They live with urgency and passion, and they are also endearingly fallible. Mackey does a wonderful job showing the ongoing affection between the characters, and how their patience and love holds the band together and keeps their friendships strong.

Best of all, jazz and the love of jazz infuse the entire work. The characters make frequent references to jazz musicians and albums, and the book even contains a seven-page discography. It's a pleasure to get an inside look of how a jazz ensemble lives and breathes, to feel its struggles and triumphs as it tries to make its music come to life, not to mention earn a living. Mackey's most amazing feat is his descriptions of the band's music, particularly its improvised songs, which sometimes continue for over a dozen pages. He plunges right into the musicians' bodies and imaginations, showing what actually happens during the high-wire act of group improvisation. It's sheer brilliance, certainly one of the most memorable meetings of prose and jazz in English literature.

Mackey has gained considerable praise for his magnum opus, including the New York Times choosing Bass Cathedral as one of the 100 Notable Books of 2008. All the accolades are well-deserved: this is an absolutely original work of art, one that entertains, educates and expands consciousness. It's also one of the most important works of jazz fiction in the previous century, and this one as well. The good news is that Mackey is only 63 years old, so there's every reason to hope that the adventures of N and his band will continue unfolding in the upcoming decades.

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