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The Talking White Orphan Photography Blues : THE SURPRISE OF BURNING by Michael Doane (Alfred A. Knopf: $16.95; 288 pp.)

March 20, 1988|Itabari N. Njeri | Njeri is a feature writer for The Times and a former arts writer, music critic and professional singer. Her book, "Took the A Train: Family Portraits and Personal Escapades," will be published by Times Books next winter. and

"The Surprise of Burning," an intriguing title for Michael Doane's second novel, hopscotches across four decades of violent time and space.

In a swiftly paced, journalistic skimming of outer and inner worlds, the author lights on the blues and jazz scene of the '30s and '40s, the anarchist movement of the 1930s, World War II, the Algerian struggle for independence, the Vietnam War and the protagonist's inner psychological yearning for self-identification.

Hunter Page, the main character, is a free-lance photojournalist in Vietnam. Literally wrenched from his mother's womb by the force of a 1944 bomb attack on London as she is being driven to a hospital in an ambulance, Page is a man constantly drawn to violence and self-destruction. Blinded by the trauma of his birth for several years, he is later burdened by perfect vision--a war photographer who sees too much, too clearly. And, having lived constantly on the edge, always in war or at war with himself, he'd rather sleep in New York doorways, on many nights can only sleep in doorways, believing he can never deserve a real bed and a woman in it to love him.

But of course, his self-destruction is in the blood. His mother, kind of an early version of a Janis Joplin intent on living everything she sings, was a legendary white blues singer named Lela Maar. She dies at the moment of his birth, leaving him an orphan whose life inevitably becomes a search for his unknown father and a filtering of fact from the legend that his mother has become.

Structurally, the novel alternates between the past--Lela Maar's life and many loves; her son's search for his father as a younger man--and "the present," in this case meaning the early- to mid-1970s in America and Vietnam. Doane handles these changes in chronology smoothly, in fact, seamlessly. And the opening chapter depicting the trauma of Page's birth, beginning with his mother's labor pains in a London clinic, is powerful and poetic.

Further, there are moments in this novel where Doane's subtle depictions of merciless violence--wait till you find out what they did to the wide-eyed Algerian woman newly turned to prostitution--is so unexpectedly shocking it causes you to shiver, gasp, go back and read it again.

That said, there are some historical/cultural improbabilities in this novel that almost rendered it unreadable, as far as I am concerned.

There just were no white, female blues singers, legendary or otherwise, in the 1930s and 1940s. Later, this singer, Lela Maar, is described as being a jazz singer, which is more probable. But Doane seems to use the terms blues and jazz interchangeably; that they are not synonymous is elementary. He also has Maar auditioning in the early 1930s for the great black band leader and musical arranger Fletcher Henderson. We learn in the novel that she probably didn't get past the first four bars of music. But are we really supposed to take this seriously?

No white female singer was ever allowed to sing in front of a black band in the 1930s. Light-brown Billie Holiday had to darken her complexion with makeup when she sang with black bands in the South so that whites would be sure she was black.

Finally, Doane has Lela Maar and her integrated band performing for black audiences in Louisiana in the 1930s. Unless it was a secret club, or a state with the same name in another country, no way.

And then, as is the right of any novelist, we hear what one suspects are the personal musical theories/frustrations of the author. Black people don't have a monopoly on heartbreak. White people can sing the blues, we are told. And Lela Maar tells blacks who resent her ripping off their music and singing too black to buzz off. She's an artist, doing what she has to do. There are clear, contemporary parallels to all this, of course. And Doane, through his characters, sounds like so many frustrated white musicians who resent the dominance of blacks in a field that they created. Everyone knows there are great white blues and jazz artists. Just as there are great black opera singers. And for obvious cultural reasons, there are never likely to be as many great white jazz musicians as black or as many black opera singers as white.

Even if you can get past the historical and cultural improbabilities that stalled my interest in this book, there are the contrived twists of plot, the unnatural dialogue and the cliches that are supposed to stand for real characters.

This book is half the story of singer Lela Maar and half the story of her disturbed son, Page. Of Lela's world, the world of blues and jazz, Doane does not know much. And if he knows, he does not seem to understand it.

Page is every cliche of a burned-out, Vietnam returnee you have ever heard of--in this case a non-combat photographer who suffered as much as any soldier.

At worst, this book is just unbelievable and shallow. At best, it is fast-paced with flashes of alternately shattering and shimmering prose. Doane needs to slow down, go deeper and write about what he knows.

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