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BOOK REVIEW : Improvising Lives in a Borrowed Culture : ARABIAN JAZZ by Diana Abu-Jaber ; Harcourt Brace $21.95, 374 pages

June 24, 1993|ZAN STEWART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Zan Stewart regularly writes about jazz for the Times.

Jazz and literature are quite complementary art forms, though you'd never know it from the scant amount of prose that has been written about what's been called "the sound of surprise" and where the improviser's role is to "tell a story."

Some writers have tackled the tricky problem of translating the sounds, rhythms and characters of the jazz milieu into fiction--Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Julio Cortazar and Amiri Baraka among them--but not many.

Not surprisingly, then, there's not much jazz per se in "Arabian Jazz," Diana Abu-Jaber's inspired, often stunning debut contemporary novel about five months in the lives of a family of Arab-Americans who reside in Upstate New York. But who cares? This book is a lot like jazz: full of passion and feeling, replete with dynamic and rhythmic language that sparkles with color and invention.

Abu-Jaber's alternately dancing, detailed, melancholic and lyrical prose mirrors the crackling passages of a great jazz soloist like trumpeter Kenny Dorham, whose tone bubbled at the edges like a pancake just tossed on the greased griddle, his melodies a simultaneous paean to the openness of possibility and the certainty of loss.

"Arabian Jazz" centers around Matussem (Mat) Ramoud, a 50-year-old native of Jordan who moved to the United States 30 years ago, and his two daughters--Jemorah, 30, called Jem, and Melvina, 22, known as Melvie.

This remarkable threesome live in relative comfort in Euclid, a fictional community near Syracuse, N.Y., where there is not only a small Jordanian enclave, but an extensive, poverty-level white population as well.

Forward motion in the life of the Ramouds has been stunted, primarily because of the death 20 years ago of Nora, Mat's wife and the girls' mother. Nora was an Irish-American with hair "like the color when the sun goes down." She died of typhus--she refused to be inoculated against it--on her sole journey to her husband's homeland.

Nora plagues the Ramouds like an agitated spirit. Mat can't talk about her, can't forget her: "When (he) opened his eyes each morning, Nora would still not be there. He was amazed by this."

Melvie seeks memories of the mother she never knew, excoriating her sister for withholding facts about their mother's death. Jem can't forget how her mother died as she watched, shocked how her father "could lie asleep while her mother turned to stone."

Yet all three seek to heal, and it is not by accident that Abu-Jaber gives them each employment in a nearby hospital--Mat as the head of the janitorial services, Jem as a billing clerk and Melvie as a nurse.

Slowly, mysteriously, magically, the three dislodge themselves from their imagined, and not so imagined, torments (among them, trying to fit into a culture that degrades ethnicity) searching for, and discovering, ways to move on.

Mat, Jem and Melvie are an intriguing triad. A man who loves lawn ornaments as much as he reveres jazz, Mat is a drummer in his spare time and leads a lounge band. Now and then he plays along with records by John Coltrane or Charlie Parker ("That Bird, he is wailer!" he exclaims at one point).

The sisters are night-and-day opposites. "They looked so alike, their skin the same pale shimmer of olive, the same glints of blue in their black hair. But there was a different, strident note in Melvie's eyes--she always held them high and regal, as if she were forever impatiently looking over a crowd. Jem's gaze went inward, and if a person looked closely at her, they might feel themselves being drawn in."

The author surrounds the key protagonists with relatives, friends, business associates and, very occasionally, lovers--and delivers their tales in brief snippets that rocket from the present to the past and back.

There's Aunt Fatima, who so longs to see Jem married that she introduces her niece to one buffoonish suitor after another. There's Uncle Fouad, an obese, wealthy Jordanian who spends a month with the Ramouds, racking up bills and using cologne to avoid bathing.

If there could be said to be a lapse in the overall brilliance of this book, it's Abu-Jaber's use of the omniscient narrator who sees inside everyone's head. Sometimes, this multiple point of view leaves the reader swirling; it makes it hard to keep up with who's thinking what and who's telling the story.

Ultimately, though, the author's superb craft and seemingly limitless imagination withstand any detractions. The great jazz trombonist Vic Dickenson was said to have heard the tones of music so precisely "his ears were like vacuum cleaners."

Abu-Jaber's sense of pitch rivals Dickenson's. Be it Mat or Fatima, speaking their pidgin Arabic-English, Melvie's dynamic, insistent speech or Gilbert Sesame's suave, pool-hustler jive, she makes those voices ring authentically.

*

Richard Eder is on vacation.

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