Owen Martell’s Intermission is a quiet and delicately-rendered meditation on grief set during another great American jazz age. Taking place in New York in the summer of 1961, immediately after the fatal accident of twenty-five-year old bassist Scott LaFaro, the novel imagines its emotional aftermath on musician Bill Evans and his family. In real life, Evans had disappeared from the media for several months, and Martell’s evocation of that unknowable period is a suggestive portrait of what could have been.
Martell draws from Peter Pettinger’s How My Heart Sings and from Eliot Zigmund’s accounts of playing with the Bill Evans trio. But while biographical, the novel is much more preoccupied with depicting a universalized expression of love and mourning. The first three sections of the book are written from the perspective of different Evans family members, before the focus turns to Bill himself; they present refracting angles on the man’s journey through grief. His older brother Harry reconciles with his role as Bill’s childhood music rival as he now tries to support him; his overprotective mother Mary watches over her son and her husband, using the tragedy as an the opportunity to recreate family intimacy; and his largely unfeeling father, Harry Sr., tries to assuage Bill’s loss with drink and a stubborn sense of normalcy. The anticipated event overshadowing the narrative is the release of the Bill Evans Trio’s legendary record, Sunday at the Village Vanguard, which was produced right before LaFaro’s death. Bill’s face on the cover ‘looks only just warm, like the fulfillment of premonition’, and the energy and vibrancy of the record is, in Martell’s book, tempered with subdued ghostliness.
The book is a catalogue of perceptive observations about character and habit, often brought to life through descriptions of embodied memory. Harry’s love for his wife and daughter manifests through ‘a sapping in his body, like he’d been tapped at the knees’; when Mary remembers bathing her baby sons, she feels the mnemonic ‘act itself grounding her, grounding her flesh, in a contact of life and love’. These are beautiful pockets of prose. Also notable is Martell’s use of counterpoint in both narrative and style: the characters interact with one another without quite being able to broach the other’s emotional core, and the episodic, oblique representation of events creates a negative space where past and present coincide. The opening scene, where Harry follows Bill at a distance as they weave through New York’s streets, is a deliberate and measured introduction to the contrapuntal themes running throughout the book.
The blurb claims that the novel is ‘a conjuring of a pivotal moment in American music and culture—a unique representation of the jazz scene in the early 1960s’, but anyone reading the book for that reason alone would be disappointed. Martell’s focus is on the inner lives of his characters, rather than the historical moment of which they are a part. And if anything in Intermission gives this reader pause, it would be the exquisite neatness of the writing itself. For a jazz trio noted for innovative lyricism and emotional range, and for a fictional meditation on something as complex as loss, Martell’s treatment is perhaps too controlled. The overall, pristine sheen appears to emphasize surface over than depth, and the writing might seem over-laboured and affected when read on a local level. That reservation, though, can be seen as an intermission within the broader reading experience. Martell’s book is a worthwhile read, and the quadripartite narrative, when taken in sum, resounds with the fullness of a deeper chord.