Book Review: Shackling Water
by Adam Mansbach
Publication Date: Feb 19, 2002
List Price: $22.95 (store prices may vary)
Page Count: 240
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Parent Company: Bertelsmann and Pearson PLC
Read Doubleday’s description of Shackling Water.
Book Reviewed by Thumper
I awoke and discovered myself in the middle of an improvisational jazz solo of great intensity, dexterity, color and depth. I knew not the melody, the song, the structure in which the solo began, nor when to anticipate the ending. Thus began my journey into the life of Latef James-Pearson, the central figure of Adam Mansbach's stunningly beautiful, heart-aching debut novel, Shackling Water. I blindly grasped for anything solid and held on for a ride, before, I had made a conscience decision on whether I wanted to make this journey or not. As the haze began to dissipate, the water became calmer and the melody demanded the spotlight. I made myself more comfortable and allowed Mansbach to play Latef’s story. Shackling Water emerged as a brilliantly written, risk-taking novel that landed gracefully on its feet. The novel approaches genius.
Shackling Water is the story of Latef James-Pearson, an 18-year-old black man who has dreams and the talent to become a jazz musician, a story that reveals Latef's coming of age as he is baptized in the fire of manhood. Latef leaves his childhood home in Roxbury, Massachusetts and goes to New York City to fulfill his destiny, study his craft and musical idol Albert Van Horn. Latef's true journey is not traveling from one geographic location to another, nor is it mastering the translation of mental ideas, formulas, or theorems into an ideal sax solo; but, one through new friendships, old friends, race and practicing, living, and inhaling the music of his own heart. Latef awakes to discover that he is traveling the most difficult road of all.
I'll readily admit Mansbach messed with me. Shackling Water was not the book I expected. I thought, coming of age story of a young black man, I can hang. I was not expecting one of the finest pieces of literature that I will encounter this year. Mansbach married jazz and hip-hop, creating Latef's world. He dissected the character Latef with the precision and sterile, steel emotions of a surgeon, only to reassemble Latef with unblinking objectivity, and a comforting motherly caress. Mansbach must live with his ears constantly pressed against walls and concrete sidewalks, staring into people's mouths as they talk.
I'm going to, figuratively, take my coat and shoes off, throw my hat on top of the bookshelf, put some Aretha on, drop the proper, grammatically correct English, exhale and make myself comfortable, just be me. Mansbach showed his ass on what may be the finest novel written this year and half of the next one. It’s jazz, jazz that is recognized as high art, yet remains attainable to the everyday, I-gotta-keep-a-job folk. The book is smooth, textured, sharp, hard and ambitious. After I finished the book, I cussed Mansbach a blue streak. ’Why that son of a bitch, that son of a bitch did it!’ I screamed, after I closed my open mouth. I read an essay from one of our distinguish authors who believed that literature written in the jazz medium would produced the true American literary aesthetic statement; thereby, the highest caliber American literature that could share the same company, plateau and artistic value of the great European literature because jazz is the one true great contribution to the arts that America has produced. While, in my opinion, the great gentleman's work failed to live up to his own aspirations, Mansbach succeeded.
Let's deal with the pink 600 lbs elephant that's sitting in the middle of the room. I did not know that Adam Mansbach was white when I requested, had started reading, and frankly, flipping cartwheels over the book. Mansbach ethnicity was revealed to me later on the discussion board. I cannot determine the race of a person based on his name, or the fact that the author's picture is absent from the back cover of the book. Naturally, the question immediately comes to mind, how did Mansbach, a white man, create, treat a book that features, with the exception of Mona, the white woman who became romantically involved with Latef, only African-American characters? Mansbach did an exceptional job depicting the main characters. I have read too many books to use the politically correct assumption that if the author developed his characters well, it's his job, the objective of his role, defining his existence. Naw. There's a different flava that an African-American author has, no matter his technical English prowess, that I can sense, am drawn and attracted to. Mansbach’s Shackling Water has that flava. Shackling Water is literally off the beeping hook.