Cynthia Shearer’s novel The Celestial Jukebox (2005) explores the multicultural South of the new century. It is set in the fictional Mississippi town of Madagascar, a town that reflects many of the changes that have come to the American South as a whole. Everyone — people whose families who have lived in Madagascar for a century, people who have just arrived — must learn to live in the new world.
Few novels offer such an array of characters and backgrounds: Boubacar, a young African Muslim who comes to America to join his uncles and yearns to play the blues; Angus Chien, a Chinese immigrant who runs a small store near Madagascar; Dean, a long-time white farmer whose wife has left him for reasons neither understands; a dissatisfied housewife neglected by her husband and children; a man who collects and repairs jukeboxes; a street gang; an eccentric elderly artist who makes bird houses and lines their interiors with the great books of the western world and who claims to be the daughter of Matisse; Honduran farm workers; Aubrey, an African American farmer with a gambling problem, and the list goes on. They’re all a charming and exotic lot, and the book could easily fall into cliché and platitude. But it doesn’t.
Shearer’s great achievement is her development of characters. They’re all credible, convincing human individuals. Shearer loves her characters in the same way that Dickens seemed to love his, and this love is conveyed to and shared by the readers. This book consists of 35 short chapters, each with its own title, so that at first it seems like a collection of stories. But the chapters are interwoven as characters meet and become involved with one another — Boubacar goes to work for Angus Chien, the disgruntled housewife and the jukebox collector fall in love, Dean befriends an African American girl who has come back South looking for her ancestor, and so on. In a way, the novel reminded me of ensemble movies like Crash and Magnolia and even Nashville where the lives of individual characters are part of a larger reality.
Music is a unifying theme. Characters are always listening to or thinking about music — the blues, rock, country and western, African drumming, and European classical. Bob Dylan’s songs are a recurring motif. A National Steel guitar passes from one character to another and ultimately ends up in the hands of Boubacar, who learns to play it.
Another unifying connection is Ariadne. Long dead at the time of the novel’s events, she was an African American midwife who helped bring many of the Mississippi natives in the novel into the world. Named for the woman in Greek myth who is turned into a spider, she weaves a metaphoric web of relationships, links, connections, and consequences that are the heart of this novel. Through her, Shearer suggests the fundamental shared humanity of all the inhabitants of Madagascar.
The lesson of this book is that America is a land of immigrants, that its power and cultural wealth come out of the diverse quilt that of its population. This is not a particularly earthshaking idea, and to Shearer’s credit she doesn’t push it. This novel makes its point by showing how all the characters — white and black, Asian and Hispanic and African — deal with the same problems and suffer the same ambitions and desires. By making her readers empathize with and care about these characters, Shearer gently leads them towards the appropriate conclusions.
The last few chapters of the novel occur on the day of the attacks on the World Trade Center. The attacks occur far away from the Mississippi setting of the novel, but all the characters hear about and understand what they mean. Suddenly the ethnic and cultural relationships of the novel seem fragile. The African Muslims take precautions for their safety. They become more conscious of themselves as outsiders. Shearer shows in these stories how short- and long-term Mississippi residents like Dean, Boubacar, Angus Chien, and their friends have gradually adjusted to and become a part of the diverse population among which they live. The World Trade Center attacks make everyone wary of everyone else, and though all may recover from the shock, the possibility of discord and conflict is there.
It was a pleasure to read this book. It is modest and unassuming with a straightforward, unadorned style that focuses on the characters. As the number of pages left to read dwindled, I became concerned that the characters would not solve their problems before the novel ended. I am usually a more objective reader who looks forward to finishing even the best of books. But not this one.
Does the title, The Celestial Jukebox, allude to the Hawthorne story “The Celestial Railroad,” where the narrator finds himself on a train with a motley assemblage of individuals all headed towards the same destination? Could it be in some way representative of the American population, the human condition? Maybe. Maybe not.
In Shearer’s novel the celestial jukebox resides in Angus Chien’s store. It holds all the great songs and musicians of the American 20th century, the music that in one way or the other binds all these characters together and by which they define their lives. Usually the jukebox only half works, refusing to play the song the customer has chosen, playing something else instead. But it always plays something. The jukebox represents the dreams and ambitions and the cultural interconnections of all the characters who bring this novel to life and make it memorable.
Cynthia Shearer lives in Oxford, Mississippi. She is also the author of The Wonder Book of the Air (1997).