Don’t Start Me Talkin’
by Tom Williams
Curbside Splendor Publishing
220 pages / $15.95 Buy from Curbside Splendor
People put on different fronts every day for different reasons—maybe for work, romance, or as a means to escape themselves—and some perhaps do it unwittingly while others do it with great care. In Williams’ immensely satisfying novel, musicians Wilton and Peter are of the latter variety, slipping in and out of their respective personas as the salty True Delta Blues veteran Brother Ben and his harp (harmonica) playing young partner Silent Sam. Narrated by Peter—an educated man who, when playing the part of Silent Sam, can barely read—the story brings the reader on what might be the duo’s final North American tour. Whether they’re giving interviews or playing small venues on college campuses, Wilton (who plays golf on the sly and is ten years younger than his slumped and sleepy alter ego Brother Ben) and Peter must cling to their contrivances and the deep, often fictitious mythology that’s brought them to this point. As Brother Ben and Silent Sam, they’re giving audiences—largely made up of white, nerdy, academic fanboys—and critics what they want: genuine purveyors of the blues, hard-living men who’ve risen from squalor with music both heart-wrenching and hopeful. For five years, Wilton has taught Peter how to play the part, how to dress, eat, and speak when in the public eye, and Peter sometimes wrestles with this willful dishonesty and how it affects his worldview: “When you spend so much time being someone you’re not, you suspect everyone’s got a con.” The reader sees Peter’s strained relationship with his family, his mother lamenting she doesn’t know who her son is and worried this Silent Sam character is taking over. She wants Peter to lead a normal life, or a life with which she can better identify, and Peter too struggles with this same desire to give up the charade that’s allowed him to do what he loves. Peter and Wilton love playing the blues, and they play the blues so well they’ve been invited to the Beale Street Blues Awards in Memphis where they’ve been nominated for Best Traditional Artist. Whether they’ll win or not is anyone’s guess and maybe the achy and proud persona of Brother Ben could care less either way: whatever happens will sear itself into the mythology Wilton seems to love nearly as much as the music. Beale Street is just one stop among many on this fantastic ride that gains momentum as their tour progresses and Williams keeps perfect rhythm with everything he sets in motion: the identity conflicts, the grind of the tour, the danger of being discovered as frauds, and the questionable future of the duo. Through the amiable voice of Peter, Williams guides the reader from the passenger seat of the duo’s styling ’76 Fleetwood Brougham, to the ephemeral privacy offered by a hotel room, to the damp hardwood of the stage: “And when it seems we can’t push past the limits True Delta Blues imposes on us, Ben says, ‘Blow Sam,’ and allows me a solo of two choruses. I push those notes around like they looked at my woman and need a reminder not to try that shit again.” Tense, thoughtful, and funny, this novel will leave readers floating from the show, ears ringing and hearts racing. (February 2014)
Mel Bosworth is the author of the novel FREIGHT.