Woodwinds musician Scott Shachter puts down his flute and sax and picks up his pen (or more likely his computer keyboard) to turn out his first novel, Outside In, a clever, droll, jazz based fantasy that plumbs the relationship between genius and madness in the pursuit of artistic vision.
As the novel begins Shawn Lewis, an unsuccessful free jazz saxophonist eking out a living playing odd gigs around New York and giving sax lessons, has just been dumped by the love of his life. He is playing on a float in the Sixth Street parade when he is confronted from the crowd by a man he calls “the most disturbing person” he’d ever seen. In the middle of his solo a large man decked out in varying shades charges the float shoving his way through the crowd and shouting like a lunatic. Luckily he is stopped by the police, but not long after, Shawn is hired to play at a private party in Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn, and who does he find when he begins playing, but the lunatic in red.
Turns out that while few if any people find his music tolerable, the lunatic, Jimmy Bell, is a fan—fan as in fanatic. And the more Shawn learns about him, questions begin to arise about the nature of his madness, indeed the nature of madness in general. Because Bell’s behavior is far from normal, there seems to be method to his madness. He sees worlds and a while reality hidden to those mired in the norm, and he hears something in Shawn’s music that demands he make him aware of that world. It is the effects of this relationship on Shawn and his music that propels the novel.
The plot is comical and fantastic. Shawn runs into a variety of characters that may be real, that may be figments of his own growing madness—Prof Thel, Maestro C, Mr. Jula. He learns about Plarps and Kloik Kleks. He finds himself entranced by abstract paintings that seem to pull him into other worlds, and after a while, something happens to his music, and changes his life. His music begins to fascinate listeners of all kinds.
The idea that the vision of the madman is often clearer than that of the sane is not new. It is a theme that goes back to Lear and Don Quixote, and while Shachter is not quite Cervantes, his book is both entertaining and challenging. It raises significant questions about the nature of art. It is no accident that Shawn’s favorite painting is his print of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” It is no accident that Bell’s paintings like Shawn’s music seem to make no sense. In their work, there is truth for those with the eyes to see, the ears to hear.
Outside In is a fun read with some serious points to make. It goes down well with a spoonful of Ornette Coleman on the side.
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