Disappointment is the word that might come to mind within the first few pages of Last Night at the Blue Angel. The notes on the flyleaf identify Chicago of the early 1960s, home to one of the country's most vibrant jazz scenes, as the setting for the novel. Examples of these, however, are hard to find.
The reader learns that the Blue Angel, a pivotal setting in the novel, is a jazz club; even so, the jazz element is marginal. It appears as names dropped occasionally -- Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, Bix Beiderbecke -- but readers won't find much beyond that suggestion.
Author Rebecca Rotert is a resident of Omaha, Neb. A singer, songwriter and contributor to journals and magazines, she also teaches with the Nebraska Writers Collective.
Opportunities for building jazz music into the narrative are frequent. Naomi, the mother of sometime-narrator Sophia, is a club singer. Naomi works with Bennett, a piano player whose character could have been developed into a Nat King Cole- or Fats Waller-type man.
The novel delivers a narrative of complex relationships rather than the natural evolution of Chicago jazz, and offers almost nothing about the jazz scene.
As the novel opens, Naomi has been performing for a few months in the Blue Angel. The club is a marginal operation, kept going in spite of its pathetic, run-down condition. Naomi's dresser Hilda makes do with shabby stage garments; Naomi, meanwhile, knows that her time at the Blue Angel is drawing to a close.
Daughter Sophia, a delightful child, is wise beyond her 10 years. The reader is likely to be somewhat intrigued by the characters in Sophia's world who have become like family to Sophia and her mother.
Having been raised in small-town poverty and forced to leave said town, Naomi now maintains a rather flamboyant personal style, with people of various genders and lifestyles coming and going: Laura the flight attendant, Laura's brother David (who turns out to be Sophia's birth father), Sister Italia and Rita (born Ricky), to name a few.
Sophia keeps lists -- one of the visitors to her mother's bedroom, and another of things she would need in the event of a disaster.
At its core, Last Night at the Blue Angel is a story of a mother-daughter relationship, and involves assorted other characters who have become a kind of family to Sophia and Naomi. The plot is fairly simple, in as much as the central figure, Naomi, dominates the action. She is a self-centred prima donna who exploits most of the people around her in her quest to become a star. Naomi lives, as Sophia explains, in the "dark margins."
The main durable relationship is that between mother and daughter. Jim, the major male character, is a police officer-turned-photographer who projects his affection for Naomi to Sophia, who considers him her father. One of Jim's photographs of Naomi ends up on the cover of Look magazine, which becomes a career-changing event for her. Naomi, however, barely gives Jim the time of day until it's too late.
Some would say that the style of Last Night at the Blue Angel is awkward, punctuated by short sentences and phrases that fail to flow naturally. The use of italics, rather than quotation marks, for the dialogue may also be irritating to readers.
But overall, as a first novel, Rotert's Last Night at the Blue Angel is a remarkable piece of writing.
Ron Kirbyson is a Winnipeg writer with a longtime interest in jazz.