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The Celestial Jukebox
ISBN 1-59376-052-3
By Cynthia Shearer
Review by: Michelle Humphrey

06/06/05

The first song we hear from the jukebox at the Celestial Grocery Store is Wanda Jackson’s rollicking “Fujiyama Mama,” setting a tone of rough-edged rebellion – yet the lives in this second novel by Cynthia Shearer unfold in direct contrast to that verve and energy. The fictitious town of Madagascar, Mississippi is an American limbo where amiable, lived-in characters struggle hard to arrive at a semblance of self-revelation, and they do so with a longing for American music – a soundtrack of Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, the Doobie Brothers and Bob Dylan.

Composed largely of subplots that don’t arc as much as they waver and undulate, we enter the daily goings-on of five main characters. Bebe Marie Abide is the eccentric elderly artist who believes her father is Henri Matisse. Angus Chien, the companionless proprietor of the Celestial Grocery Store, came to this country to escape the Nanking massacres, and is haunted by memories of those years. Raine is a suburban housewife who has become a mere kitchen appliance to her family and wants to evolve into a woman again. Dean is a clean-living farmer quietly unhinged while his wife is out of town. And Boubacar is the teenage African immigrant, trying to determine America’s place on the cosmic spectrum of Good and Evil. He is mentored by a Muslim man called The Wastrel who ceremoniously makes such comments as “L’Américain was the first to teach himself how to destroy the world so many times he has lost count.”

The text reaches deeply into contemporary themes: human trafficking, hyper-consumerism and a network of nuanced ethnic tensions, most notably, Boubacar’s learned mistrust of Somalians and Jews. Shearer weaves most of this into an organic narrative thread, including the events of 09/11. This is a novel, though, and her conceit should be working its way to an artistic climax, but the character transformations we’re waiting for barely happen. Here’s one frustrating example: Raine, a virtual non-entity, and little more to her kids and husband than a food-serving automaton, gets her chance at extra-marital love, but as she engages in a kiss with the jukebox man, she neither rejoices nor despairs, but passively gazes “over his shoulder at the stars. So this is the way it would be.”

Ariadne Jones, the granny midwife of earlier days, embodies a mysticism like a wise, archetypal figure from an August Wilson play. She is only alluded to – the action takes place long after she’s dead, and yet we feel so starved for the knowledge of her life that we anxiously take up the morsels offered, from her rattlesnake-fang earrings, to a photograph from which she stares with “cool-headed purpose.” When the young pregnant Bebe Marie calls out the dead women’s name, it singularly evokes more dramatic heft than those pages of interior monologue of, say, Raine’s banal existence.

While some characters feel flimsy, Shearer has a knack for dialect and creating the memorable images that make sturdy novels (Boubacar learns to play his National Steel guitar in an exuberant Southern church; the solitary Angus watches a woman dance in a field). For a narrative that is mainly character-study, these folk, however much we’d like to shake them into awakening, are poignant at times, and summon a gritty aloneness.

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