A Month of Short Stories 2014, Day 12 – King of Jazz

A year ago, for the month of June, I wrote about an online short story each day for the month. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My blog readership fell precipitously and nobody seemed to give a damn about what I was doing – which was a surprising amount of work.

Because of this result, I’m going to do it again this year.

Today’s story, for day Twelve – King of Jazz, by Donald Barthelme

Read it online here:

King of Jazz

When I was a little kid I played trombone for a while. Actually, I think I was beginging to be pretty good at it. I can’t complain – it has given me an understanding of music that has served me to this day. After a couple of years we moved to a place that had no brass bands open to me and I made the discovery that it is impossible to play a trombone by itself. Probably for the best; it was about this time I learned to type.

So today we have a very short story (as is his wont) about a trombone player by Donald Barthelme. The trombone player is named Hokie Mokie and he is the new King of Jazz… now that Spicy MacLammermoor, the old king, is dead.

I remember when I played trombone in the school band, the most frustrating thing was the challenge system. Anybody could challenge a higher seat and if he won, he would take the place. I was first seat but I had to constantly contend with a bevy of lesser players that would game the system. The fact I was a young freshman made me an especially tempting target. They would practice one single piece until they had it cold, then challenge me with that piece. I was a better player, so I would usually win, but they kept coming and all I had to do is make one mistake and down I went. The bandleader would encourage me to challenge back as soon as possible, but I tired of the game pretty quickly.

In this story Hokie Mokie is challenged right off the bat by a Japanese Trombone player named Hideo Yamaguchi and the title King of Jazz is suddenly up for grabs.

I came upon the writings of Donald Barthelme in an odd, backward way. I stumbled across an article in the New Yorker (Good Losers, March 8, 1999) written by two of his brothers, Stephen and Frederick. It was an eloquent piece about an extremely successful family, the father a famous and influential architect and three sons that were noteworthy writers. The article was about two of them, Frederick and Stephen, who had become terribly addicted to gambling. It was fascinating and horrifying to read how these enormously talented and intelligent men were destroying their lives by driving down to the cheap casinos along the Mississippi coast and blowing all their livelihood on blackjack binges.

During the course of the article the brothers wrote about their older brother, Donald, and his revolutionary genius as an author. That interested me enough to do some research and to start to read his stuff.

Most of what Donald Barthelme writes are very short stories, flash fiction. They are unique and unusual bits of text – not what you are expecting or used to reading. They give up on a regular plot arc and make the reader figure out the meaning from a series of seemingly unrelated, often ridiculous statements, occurrences, or facts.

It’s a bit of an acquired taste. At first it was attractive to me because of its short nature – I figured I could read these little morsels of tales in some spare seconds here or there. But their simplicity turned out to be an illusion. The stories were more complex and deeper than they appeared on the surface. It took longer than I expected and were more work than I was prepared for – the tiny things had to be re-read and thought about.

“What’s that sound coming in from the side there?”
“Which side?”
“The left.”
“You mean that sound that sounds like the cutting edge of life? That sounds like polar bears crossing Arctic ice pans? That sounds like a herd of musk ox in full flight? That sounds like male walruses diving to the bottom of the sea? That sounds like fumaroles smoking on the slopes of Mt. Katmai? That sounds like the wild turkey walking through the deep, soft forest? That sounds like beavers chewing trees in an Appalachian marsh? That sounds like an oyster fungus growing on an aspen trunk? That sounds like a mule deer wandering a montane of the Sierra Nevada? That sounds like prairie dogs kissing? That sounds like witchgrass tumbling or a river meandering? That sounds like manatees munching seaweed at Cape Sable? That sounds like coatimundis moving in packs across the face of Arkansas? That sounds like – ”
“Good God, it’s Hokie! Even with a cup mute on, he’s blowing Hideo right off the stand!”
“Hideo’s on his knees now! Good God, he’s reaching into his belt for a large steel sword – Stop him!”
“Wow! That was the most exciting ‘Cream’ ever played! Is Hideo all right?”

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