Not your usual triangle. We first meet Augustus Fitzwilliam Boyd, later aka Doctor August in the 1860s as a child accompanying on piano his violinist Uncle Jack. Bram introduces us early on to one of the distinguishing features of this novel, homosexuality. Uncle Jack has more uses for his accompanist than musical support. Fitz takes it all in stride. Later, traveling in a border area in the fading days of the Civil War, Fitz is captured by a band of confederates and soon thereafter finds himself freed when his captors are slaughtered by Union soldiers. Isaac Kemp, a young man slightly older than Jack, was a slave of the rebels. They become fast friends and, well, more than friends. Fitz loves Isaac with his soul, not just his body. Isaac’s love may not be so complete. The pair make their way north, with Fitz finding work playing piano in a bordello while Fitz learns carpentry from a German employer. Fitz is an accomplished musician, but his inspiration comes, on occasion, from spirits. Isaac becomes the manager of the pair, but is not satisfied with his lot. He dreams of becoming a public speaker. While on a trip to Europe they become acquainted with Alice, a prim New Englander about to begin work as a governess. She and Isaac strike up a conversation which blossoms when they reconnect on the continent, eventually marrying. And here we have our triangle, as Alice and her and Isaac’s two children become part of the traveling enterprise. Fitz, now Doctor August, has made a name for himself among the monied class and plies his trade among them when public performance opportunities dry up. He happens across an old chum from his bordello days, a former lady of the evening who had married well, but who had suffered the loss of not only her husband but her firstborn son. She wants Fitz to play for her and invoke the spirit of the son she cannot release. It is while summering with her at her manse in Istanbul that he meets her other son, the 14-year-old Freddie. Freddie, desperate to be loved as his brother was loved, seduces Fitz, who longs for the love he once shared with Isaac, but which Isaac had denied him since marrying. This certainly makes one uncomfortable, not for the same-sex aspect of it, but for the pederasty. Crimes indeed. Isaac, who had been traveling while the rest of the group was in Istanbul finally arrives, sees what is up and demands that Fitz end it.
I had mixed feelings about the book. I enjoyed the portrayal of the times and places, historical details about the Reconstruction era, but I felt that the book drifted. It was a quick read, but did not always feel very satisfying. Also, I suppose, I find myself annoyed that novelists like Bram portray their artists as somehow being able to magically capture some essence that is blazingly clear to their viewers/listeners. Fitz’s music, for example, summons the spirit of one son for Lady Ashe (Fanny) one time, and the spirit of Freddie another. It gets more specific than this, of course. I was reminded of Picture Palace and The Tin Drum, which do the same. I find it annoying. There are many references to specific pieces of music, but without a grounding in such they are meaningless to me and a source of further frustration. The moral character of Bram’s protagonist is clearly problematic. Having sex with a 14-year-old boy. Oh Dear. The author seems to see this as merely a tut-tut and not worthy of much actual condemnation. NAMBLA anyone?
Clearly there are issues here from the author’s life. After the Turkish tragedy, Isaac proclaims, “I charged in and seized control of what I did not understand. I made the boy ashamed, told him he was damned and not worth saving. And so he destroyed himself.” (p 363)
Many times in Istanbul, Fitz sees apparitions that turn out to be living people. Are we to infer that when he sees his spirits they are real as well? Or is the line between real and spirit a blurred one?
When Isaac, wracked by guilt, leaves the family to return to America, it did not ring true. Fitz and Alice continue their relationship, pretending to be a couple, raising Isaac’s children. The boy, of course, turns out to be gay. This around the time that an aging Isaac is playing at one of the various sub-attractions at Coney Island.
Overall, although there were things in this book that were meritorious, I was not thrilled. I had hoped for more from the author of Gods and Monsters