Taking Down Uncle Tom 

A politically charged new novel confronts generational tension in African American communities

A politically charged new novel confronts generational tension in African American communities

The title has attitude: Axeman’s Jazz. Bluesy and bad, the phrase is seductive, undeniably noir-ish. But the title is also a tease: Delivering little of the sass and sweat its provocative name promises, Tracy Daugherty’s new novel is an inharmonious mix of history, mystery, politics and romance, a book that riffs on Southern culture but fails to swing.

Axeman’s Jazz is the fourth novel from Daugherty, a native of Midland, Texas, now the director of the creative writing program at Oregon State University. While there’s no denying that this writer is an accomplished prose stylist—his sentences are often lush and lovely—it’s also true that Daugherty’s not exactly a skillful storyteller. His treatment of the racial issues that form the core of this book has all the subtlety of a public service announcement.

Examining generational shifts in African American culture through the lens of a single family, Daugherty tells the story of Telisha Washington, a successful career woman trying to solve the puzzle of her past. Telisha, who is so light-skinned people assume she’s white, returns to her childhood home in Freedmen’s Town, a black enclave of Houston, and reconnects with her crotchety old uncle, Bitter, and her schoolteacher cousin, Ariyeh. She then sets about investigating a family mystery—an incident involving a black Army private, Cletus Hayes, who was accused of raping a white woman in 1917. He was lynched for the crime, and he may be Telisha’s great-grandfather. Learning the truth about him, Telisha hopes, will help her banish some personal demons and come to a better understanding of her immediate family, including her blues-musician father, who disappeared years ago, and her late mother, who married a well-to-do white man in Dallas.

As Telisha gets reacquainted with her hometown, she discovers much about the complexities of life in a community plagued by drugs and violence. But what starts out as an atmospheric, slice-of-the-South novel about a young woman rediscovering her roots soon becomes a book with an agenda—a shrill, preachy narrative in which the author presents various arguments about the state of black culture in America. Discussions between characters about what should be done to solve the drug epidemic, raise the level of education and stop violence within the African American community seem out of place in the book. This narrative problem is best represented by Reggie, Ariyeh’s progressive boyfriend and a proselytizing crusader for social reform. Reggie serves as a foil for the traditional Bitter, a compliant, old-fashioned Uncle Tom type. While their verbal sparring raises questions about racial inheritance and identity that will ultimately shape Telisha’s decisions about her own future, it also freezes the novel in its tracks.

Daugherty writes well from Telisha’s perspective, and his depiction of Freedmen’s Town has authenticity, from the sinister allure of the juke joint Bitter visits to the poverty-stricken school where Ariyeh teaches. Yet all too often, in scenes that do little to advance the narrative, his characters stop what they’re doing to speechify about matters of race, robbing the book of anything resembling momentum.

The front of Axeman’s Jazz bears a photograph of Preservation Hall in New Orleans, a shot of an audience listening intently to a group of jamming musicians. It’s not judging a book by its jacket to say that in this case the cover misrepresents the contents. Daugherty’s pedantic novel, with its politically charged plot and labored pace, feels completely disconnected from the sounds of the South. Axeman’s Jazz: It’s a suggestive name for a novel that’s surprisingly tame, a narrative that’s neither as edgy nor as tough as its title denotes.

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