Listen Up! The Next James Baldwin Has Arrived
My thoughts on Joe Okonkwo’s debut novel JAZZ MOON.
I read to be a better writer. I read to be a better person. I read to better understand the human condition, and to understand history. I read to better open my mind, expand my imagination, and to go on a journey past my own life’s experience.
And all of the above reasons why I read are fulfilled in Joe Okonkwo’s stunning debut novel, Jazz Moon. I shed tears, laughed, was even enraged at times, and was deeply heartened by Okonkwo’s emotionally satisfying prose; it’s as if my head, heart, and soul was being conducted by a confident bandleader as I moved through the pages.
Set in the late-1920s, Jazz Moon follows the life of a poet named Ben, from his late-teens to his early twenties, and with flashbacks to his childhood. It is a historical novel, love story, coming-of-age narrative that explores black life, and gay life along with Ben’s struggles during the Harlem Renaissance, and Paris. Ultimately, it explores how art is love, and love is art.
Okonkwo’s prose is both poetic and succinct; he wastes no words, which gives the narrative the musicality of a jazz composition. As well, Okonkwo composes a highly easy to visualize world–from protagonist Ben’s time in Harlem, his journey to Paris, and even in the seamless flashbacks to his childhood in the South.
While reading Jazz Moon I was reminded of some other dynamic writers: Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Gustav Flaubert, Alice Walker, Langston Hughes, and even Gertrude Stein. Also, just like my past experiences with reading the works of those mentioned above, the further I was drawn into Jazz Moon’s world, I found myself casting every single character with famous actors. The reader and writer inside is so impressed with how vivid, true-to-life, and dimensional Okonkwo’s characters are, and how expertly crafted their story arcs are fulfilled by novel’s end.
In short, read Jazz Moon. I’m convinced that over the years, I’ll read it again and again, because I’m also certain that it will become a classic work of literature. Also, it serves as an important study of the struggles of Black life, Gay life, and the intersections of both during the late-1920s Harlem Renaissance.
Below, I’ve posted a link to a feature that appeared on Lambda Literary’s website, and includes a sample read of Jazz Moon. When you read the sample pages, Joe Okonkwo’s remarkable prose speaks for itself.