A sprightly and exhilarating polka will nearly always put a crowd in high spirits, but it takes a really hot polka band to keep a crowd on its feet all through the long, laughing night. Even so, most bands know that at some point they must play a slow, sentimental waltz, so that young (and old) lovers can hold each other close and whisper mushy things. But before they take a break to wet their whistles, a really good band will crank the crowd back up again with one or two more foot-stomping, body-shaking, chandelier-rattling numbers.
Keith Maillard's The Clarinet Polka roughly follows this pattern: the simple sweet story of love and redemption at the heart of this novel begins with hilarity, then passes through a very sad and deep moment, and subsequently returns to a note of triumphant renewal.
This novel is a far cry from the dark complexity of Motet, Maillard's 1988 novel that won the B.C. Book Prize for Fiction. In Motet, imitating the polyphonic musical form the book is named after, four voices interweave in a story which¨for one of the four¨ends in tragedy. Given the folksier musical form that lends its name to The Clarinet Polka, it is perhaps fitting that Maillard's latest novel is a lighter, more humorous book that is likely to appeal to a wider group of readers than the sombre and thoughtful Motet.
Set in Raysburg, West Virginia¨the fictional blue-collar steel town where nearly all of Maillard's novels take place¨The Clarinet Polka brings the reader into the world of the Polish immigrants and refugees who came to the Ohio Valley seeking safety and prosperity. Maillard's eye for exquisite detail, which he used with such stunning effect in Light in the Company of Women and Gloria, does not fail him here. His story has such an authentic feel that it seems hard to believe that the author (in spite of his French name) is not also Polish. Maillard's genius for recreating a particular social stratum (working class immigrants) in a particular era (1969 and the early 1970s) is as unerring here as it was in his earlier recreation of Raysburg's upper crust from the 1950s in Gloria.
Even so, there is a problem with the narrative frame of this novel, which is set up as a lengthy monologue delivered in one uninterrupted outpouring. In the context of a 497-page novel, it strains credibility that anyone could speak at this length without once coming up for air. Not since Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim¨in which the narrator Marlowe rarely pauses¨has this reviewer seen a novel sustain such a conversational pretence for as great a length. However, this defect is only occasionally noticeable, and it does not mar the novel's total effect.
The deliverer of this picaresque oration is Jimmy Koprowski, a likeable Air Force veteran who is haunted by the death of one of his friends in the Vietnam War. Jimmy is a raconteur extraordinaire, capable of hilarious one-liners, such as when he remarks of his on-again, off-again married lover, Constance Bradshaw: "If you could have figured out how to plug her in, you could have run the whole Ohio Valley off her for a year or two." Yet, amusing as Jimmy is, he is also a monumental screw-up.
Besides his bizarre co-dependent entanglement with Constance (which he sometimes calls the "Jim and Connie Show"), Jimmy is an astounding binge drinker straight out of Maillard's early novels, such as Alex Driving South. In fact, Jimmy manages such prodigious feats of alcohol consumption that after 200 pages, this reviewer felt like checking into detox before attempting to finish the book.
Around this point, too, I began to wonder whether Jimmy¨who had been carrying on in an amiable but meandering fashion¨was ever going to, you know, actually do something¨such as move to Texas to work with his military buddy, as he had been vowing to do since page 1. And it was also around this point that I wondered if some readers might be tempted to give up on the novel.
Don't. Precisely at this juncture, coinciding with Easter, Jimmy undergoes one of his mini-revivals. He cuts back on his drinking, and realizes that he is falling in love with his sister's friend, a lovely and talented polka player who is only 16 years old, Janice Dluwiecki. For all his failings, Jimmy is a man of honour, so he never abuses his trust with Janice's parents and his own family. He never touches Janice, even when it becomes clear that she loves him in return. In fact, it is Janice's own bravado, when she kisses him just once, that at last sends him away (after a lengthy sidetrack) to Texas and to the sobriety he's so desperately in need of.
Janice, for her part, is descended from a long line of beautiful, talented young women who tend to populate Maillard's novels. One could almost say that Janice is another Wendy¨the classical music prodigy from Motet¨or another Gloria, the brilliant debutante from a time when beautiful women were not expected to be smart. The author gives the impression that he is practically in love with these women, or perhaps even wishes he could become them, in a literary fulfillment of the gender ambivalence he addressed in Two Strand River.
Though Jimmy is the narrator here, Janice is the unmistakable star, blowing hot notes on her clarinet and singing traditional polkas with the husky, old-country verve of a peasant from Krakow or Gdansk. As in Motet, Maillard delights in describing scenes where the musicians are really cooking. At one point, Jimmy comments: "They achieve this avalanche of sound like, you know, your basic earthquake maybe twelve notches above the Richter scale, and then bring it down to a halt like a B-52 has just crashed and burned."
But Janice's musical abilities are precisely what put her in trouble: her father, Czeslaw Dluwiecki¨who endured unimaginable horrors during Poland's waves of occupation by both Soviets and Nazis during the Second World War¨cannot bear to see his American daughter using her talents for mere peasant-inspired music. After much hesitation, he and his wife finally unburden their hearts to their children¨and it is here that the novel takes a shattering turn through one of the darkest chapters in human history.
Yet ironically, by revealing these horrors to his family, Janice's father is finally released¨and in one of the most moving passages in the novel, Mr. Dluwiecki, enraptured by his daughter's abundant talent, opens his arms to his wife, and dances the polka. "He's dancing all the way down to the end of 46th Street, and he makes a big loop through all those crazy Polaks and he comes dancing back again with his wife in his arms, and he spins her around and around," Jimmy recalls. "I never saw anyone dance such a beautiful polka." ˛