ALSTON ANDERSON : DANCE OF THE INFIDELS
By JIM BURNS
I have a small book on my shelves by Alston Anderson, a now-forgotten black writer. It’s a collection of short stories entitled Lover Man and was published in 1961 by Pan Books, though it had previously appeared in hardback from Cassell in 1959. And it had the advantage of a fairly long, favourable introduction by Robert Graves. I bought my copy of the paperback in 1961 and have re-read the stories several times since then. One of them, “Dance of the Infidels”, I’ve probably read a dozen times, if not more. I’ll explain why later, but it might help if I first of all say something about Alston Anderson himself. It will not take long. Very little is known about him.
He was born in Panama, though his parents were Jamaican, Working back from his age (84) when he died in 2008 I’d say his date of birth must have been around 1924. He went to school in Kingston, Jamaica, and moved to the United States when he was fourteen. A long story, “Schooldays in North Carolina”, is about the two years he spent at the Mary Potter-Redstone Albion Academy. It includes a few references which relate to some of his extra-curricular interests. He talks about listening to the radio with friends: “If we were lucky we would get Glenn Miller or Tommy Dorsey or Artie Shaw, and if we were real lucky we would get Earl Hines or Count Basie or Erskine Hawkins”. And he fantasises about being “a star soloist like Lester Young or Chu Berry, and when it came for my solo I’d ease myself out of the orchestra, like Lester Young does, and walk up to the microphone and hold my sax way off to the side”.
He studied at the North Carolina College in Durham from 1940 to 1943, when he was drafted into the army. There is an army story in Lover Man, but Graves points out that it isn’t autobiographical. It’s set in Germany at the war’s end, and it would appear that Anderson actually spent nearly three years in a unit based in the Persian Gulf. When discharged from the army he returned to North Carolina College and graduated in 1947. He later spent some time studying philosophy at Columbia University in New York, and then moved on to the Sorbonne in Paris where Graves says he “specialised in eighteenth-century German metaphysics”. But he also mixed with other expatriates like Terry Southern and the Canadian Mordecai Richler, soaked up the bohemian atmosphere of the Left Bank, and read Dostoyevsky, Joyce, Kafka, and Faulkner. And began to write himself.
It’s difficult to know just when he was in Paris and for how long. I’ve looked at a couple of books which are about American and other writers in the French capital in the 1950s –James Campbell’s Paris Interzone and Michael Fabre’s From Harlem to Paris – but neither makes any mention of him. And none of the stories in Lover Man take place in Paris. He was at Yaddo art colony at some stage in 1955, and in New York where he wrote the stories that comprised Lover Man. They were revised in Majorca, where Anderson lived in the late-1950s.
His friendship with Graves appears to have ended in 1962 when the older writer said he was “tired of your drinking and doping” and the fact that Anderson wasn’t settling down to work. It’s after this that the account of his life is hazy. Anderson returned to the United States, and had a novel, All God’s Children about slavery in the Southern States, published by Bobbs-Merrill in 1965. This was probably the book that was published by New English Library in England in 1968 with the title The Slave. But there is nothing to suggest that he had any more books in print after 1968, nor what he did to earn a living. His obituary says he died in poverty, no-one came forward to claim the body, and he was buried in potter’s field, New York.
There are a few other facts that are known about Anderson. He had a short story published in the New Yorker, some of his stories from Lover Man crop up in anthologies of black writers and collections of jazz writing, and an obituary in the New York Times described him as a poet and jazz critic, as well as a novelist and short-story writer. Where did he publish his poetry and jazz criticism? He and Terry Southern interviewed the novelist Nelson Algren for a 1955 issue of the Paris Review. There were reports that his stay at Yaddo had been terminated because of his behaviour and the fact he had been mixing with disreputable characters. They were presumably from outside Yaddo and not among the other residents? It might be worth mentioning, too, that, as a veteran, his body was eventually disinterred and given a decent burial under a scheme that tracked down and provided graves for ex-servicemen who had died in impoverished circumstances.
The stories in Lover Man are mostly about life in North Carolina and illustrate Anderson’s capacity to offer fresh views probably resulting from the fact that he hadn’t grown up there and as a consequence saw things in a different light. The racial element is present, of course, though not necessarily as a dominant factor. But it’s not my intention to say anything about these stories in this context.
The story that had a particular attraction for me when I first read the book is called “Dance of the Infidels” and is about a young man’s encounter with bebop and its dark side. As the narrator says: “I used to listen to jazz all the day and most the night. I’d go to bed with it and wake up with it. Look like nobody else in town was as crazy about it as me: they all said I was music happy. But that was ok by me. They live their life and I live my own”,
He often goes to a little café in the town (in North Carolina?) where he lives and if there’s a bebop record on the jukebox he’ll put his “ear right up against the speaker and listen. That way all I could hear in the whole wide world was music, and that was fine with me”. One day he notices a stranger doing exactly the same so goes over and tells him he has the record and others like it at home. The man is called Ronnie and he’s in town from New York. He’s a piano player and particularly likes to listen to Bud Powell, the premier bop pianist.
They go to the narrator’s apartment and listen together to Powell, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, J.J. Johnson, and others. I’d guess that the meeting is happening around 1948 or 1949. The title of the story is taken from a 1949 recording by Bud Powell and trumpeter Fats Navarro. They’re drinking and the visitor produces some reefers and introduces the young man to his first experience of marijuana. He gets high and can hear the records in a way that he never has before: “It was just like I’d heard them for the first time. I mean really heard them”.
When Ronnie returns to New York he promises to send the young man some marijuana, which he does. After a while, though, the narrator’s letters aren’t answered, so he decides to go to the city to see if he can locate Ronnie. He discovers the world of the Dewey Square Hotel, the Savoy Ballroom, and Minton’s Playhouse. He eventually meets Ronnie and finds that he is a heroin addict and not capable of performing as a musician. He watches him having a fix and then leaves, saying they’ll meet tomorrow. The story ends there. It’s bleak, but effective in its evocation of a certain period and its habits that, like it or not, seemed to be a part of bebop. There were probably numerous people similar to Ronnie, sometimes with musical skills, sometimes not, who became addicted to the music and its attendant way of life.
“Dance of the Infidels” has always seemed to me one of the few authentic fictional accounts of the bebop milieu. Had Anderson experienced something similar to what his young narrator, like him not long out of the army, describes? His writing certainly makes me think of the music he refers to. And want to listen to it in preference to most other sounds. The stories in Lover Man are generally still worth reading, but it’s the one I’ve described that I’ll keep on returning to as I do with the music.