The True Jazz of Wesley Brown's 'Tragic Magic'


Aram Mrjoian


The first book republished as part of McSweeney’s Of The Diaspora series, Wesley Brown’s 1978 novel Tragic Magic is as relevant today as when first brought to print more than forty years ago. To be clear, that first sentence is a cop out for its predictability, a statement both convenient and readymade, but one that holds true given the statistical reality that during that period Black literature has not only been systemically ignored and underrepresented in the publishing industry, but also intentionally erased from the American canon.

Edited by Toni Morrison during her time at Random House, Tragic Magic excels in its line-level risks, intellectual depth, and wide-ranging cultural and political subject matter. It’s a novel that—from my reading—does not attempt to appeal to the white gaze, while still firmly critiquing racism, toxic masculinity, capitalism, war, and the shortcomings of social and political revolution.

The novel centers on Melvin Ellington, known as Mouth, on the day and night after he is paroled from prison, where he served nearly two years for refusing to be drafted into the Vietnam War. He is a conscientious objector that holds to his principles even while others around him find ways to avoid consequences. Mouth narrates the chapters in an acute stream of consciousness that slows down the present while reaching into the recent past of his time behind bars. It’s an elegant structure that often allows Melvin, who is profoundly influenced by jazz, to riff in “real time.” This is to say Mouth can play with the logic of language as it occurs. For example, “The words were out of my mouth before I could retrieve them and insert the safety catch onto the proposition.”

Melvin runs into old friends and family and reflects on how his relationships have changed since his high school and college years. He finds his friend Otis lost a hand in the war and suffers from PTSD, which swiftly leads them both into all kinds of trouble. Throughout Melvin’s first twenty-four hours outside, the extended flashbacks returning to his incarceration always feel organic and cohesive. Melvin’s time in prison is loaded with opportunities for violence, but Brown doesn’t fall back on gratuitous depictions or expected representations of carceral suffering. Brown also gives his narrator a piercing sense of humor. This is Mouth’s specialty, as his nickname implies. He is hyper-aware of language and the story being told, both his personal telling and the wider societal interpretations.

One of Melvin’s musings on language begins: “The change occurred as I acquired a more sophisticated understanding of the pronouns we, us, they, and them. I learned that pronouns not only broke up the monotony of continually referring to people by name as proper nouns, but were also convenient in broadening the base of people you could talk knowledgeably about, especially if you didn’t know much about them. It was brought to my attention that black and white people had long ago found the use of we, us, they, and them invaluable in simplifying their attitudes toward one another.”

Through such exacting considerations, Brown’s masterful jazz aesthetic is fully imagined. Writing by the Beats—particularly the novels of Jack Kerouac—appropriate jazz as a kind of unstoppable movement through space and time. On The Road is essentially and then this happened sped up ad nauseum and aimed at a kind of white-privilege car culture where the drivers never really had to consider the risks of hopping trains or whizzing through sundown towns or anti-Black violence in the contiguous United States. Their countercultural urge toward spontaneity was based in a certain sense of safety and security. In Tragic Magic, Brown is much more cerebral and linguistically focused, and the riffs are based in theory rather than feeling. Mouth is emotional, but too intellectual to be controlled by his emotions. I don’t claim to be a musical expert, but the Beats in many ways strike me as anachronistically punk rock, scrambling to push through the chords without fretting over the mistakes; Brown, instead, takes the complexity of jazz and offers a deeper connection on the page.

Brown hints at the richness of this aesthetic from the beginning. In the novel’s first paragraph, Mouth narrates, “Learn the rules, then forget them and do it your own way. More than once this advice has subverted my best intentions to go along with the program.” It’s both ambiguous and clear, that Melvin—and by extension, Brown, though let’s not confuse the levels of narration here—knows how to follow and break the rules. The jazz of Brown’s words goes beyond getting from point A to point B. The stakes of the language become as important as, if not more so than, the stakes of the plot. Every note has a purpose and meaning. In this way, Brown reveals how the minute choices we make when telling a story can inflict and subvert societal truculence, marginalization, and erasure.

Brown digs at an American ethos of racism and masculine stereotypes that Melvin can’t escape. Even though no longer incarcerated, Melvin recognizes the fabric of imprisonment in every aspect of his life. “I had paid my dues,” Melvin thinks as the novel nears its close, but knows he is still trapped. He keeps moving forward. While Tragic Magic is a short novel, it accomplishes much in its ideas and variations. There’s so much more to Brown’s work than simply what happens next.

ARAM MRJOIAN earned his PhD in creative writing from Florida State University and is an editor-at-large at the Chicago Review of Books. He has also served as an editor at the Southeast Review and TriQuarterly. His writing has appeared in Cream City Review, Boulevard, Gulf Coast online, The Rumpus, The Millions, Longreads, and many other publications. Find his work at arammrjoian.com