Absinthe Literary Review, Book Reviews Spring 2002
B O O K   R E V I E W

Summer/Autumn 2005
 

Billie’s Ghost by Chad Hautmann

Billie’s Ghost
Chad Hautmann
Penguin/Plume
New York
164 pp. $12.00
  

Chad Hautmann’s premiere novel, Billie’s Ghost, serves up an interesting premise. A young widower, suffering from depression, drunkenness, and loneliness, finds his home invaded by a woman who may or may not be the ghost of Billie Holiday. She comes and goes without warning, he begins to doubt his sanity ... you know—the usual dead jazz singer’s ghost love story bit.

Hautmann makes a proficient delivery of said premise. The narrator seems fairly substantial, and the few other characters seem consistent and believable—though the suspect decision to name the widower’s cat “Mashed Potatoes” caused me to make a mad lunge for my insulin. The “ghost” channels a bit of Sam Spade in her lingo, but that’s to be expected more or less from someone/something affecting or issuing from the pertinent historical period. Some of the pop culture references come across as a bit ’70s (Papillon, for god’s sake?), and the occasional paragraph shows the I-I-I symptom of First Novel-itis, but these are few and far between. Hautmann also makes a slight misstep at times when he seems to purposely keep his narrator ignorant of certain no-brainer issues in an attempt to keep the mysterious premise aloft. 

For the most part, the author’s spare prose comes across as competent though perhaps not as turgid or lush as we would have preferred given the jazz environs and ambiance. Summoning jazz or blues figures into literature is a dicey proposition given the canonical status of jazz writers like Kerouac and the Beat fellowship. We get Billie Holiday, yes, yet we get little of her rhythms, her darkness, or her stark moving sadness in the prose style. It is, of course, not incumbent upon Mr. Hautmann to satisfy that particular historical thirst in the more jazz-savvy of his readers, yet it is precisely that stylistic choice that could have made this a vibrant and special work, instead of a competently executed novel. Competence is a prerequisite for but not analogous with greatness. Art needs heart, and this one pumps a bit obviously. And don’t be fooled: despite the trappings of depression, blues, and death, Billie’s Ghost comes across as a fairly light read. We can give it a mild recommendation, but it’s only a slight lean over the fence. Still, as this is only a first novel and shows a reasonable degree of accomplishment, we can almost certainly expect better, stronger, faster fare from a future Mr. Hautmann.                                

– CAW –

 

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