The name Paul Thompson won’t mean any more to you than my name would, but if you’d been around the bluegrass scene in New York some thirty years ago, you would have heard the stories. Jimmy Martin had wanted to make him a sunny mountain boy, but he refused to cut his hair. He’d turned Kenny Baker on to pot at Bean Blossom and played a show with Tony Trischka while tripping on acid. Easy to believe it all back then. The first time I actually saw him he was on stage, wearing a full-length plaster cast on his – give me a second to visualize this – his left leg, holding himself up by a crutch in each armpit, playing mandolin with only his forearms moving. And someone had magic-markered the bottom of the cast to look like an elephantine tools-leather cowboy boot. This was at an outdoor contest in Roxbury, Connecticut, in 1977, the summer I turned eighteen.
I have a tendency to meld into whatever obsession I have going at any time. The mystery is why one thing takes precedence, and not something else, but right now, I’m into Dante. The Inferno, to be specific. So when Dore’s illustrations of the Divine Comedy showed up in this story, the entire story became, not about the narrator’s long relationship with his musical mentor, culminating the way such stories often do, but about the older poet Virgil giving young Dante a guided tour of hell.
The set-up was terrific. I was as charmed as anyone could be by a bluegrass group whose members have day jobs as English and math professors, with the iconic Paul Jackson himself a science writer at Newsweek. I grew a bit puzzled, even a little bored perhaps, by the shift to the narrator’s routine marriage and academic career, punctuated by brief mentions of what drew me in to begin with. I figured there was some underlying thread I was missing, but I couldn’t tell where it was. As Heidi Pitlor said in her Foreword to the volume many of this year’s stories “tended to wander – sometimes intriguingly, often into unsettling territory rather than accelerate toward some definitive endpoint.”
Eventually, I felt like there was a turn, and I had some idea where we were going. And make no mistake: the initial material is essential, it just didn’t feel that way as I was reading. I did go off on one tangent: when the narrator says, “But most of the time, Paul wasn’t anybody I thought about much, though I know now that he was thinking about me,” I envisioned a completely different story than the one that actually unfolded. I still think there might be something of that tangent as subtext, but I think it was wise of David Gates to leave it at that.
In spite of the pivotal role played by Paul, it’s the narrator’s story, a story about moving on when it’s time, and paying attention to when it’s time. I think we all have some trouble with timing, but when it counts, he gets it right. Twice. Series editor Jennifer Egan says it ends with happiness. I’m not sure the narrator ends up happy, but he’s definitely better off than he might’ve been, had not the hand reached down to guide him. Come to think of it, Dante called his work a “Comedy” not because it was funny, but because it had a happy ending.
The hand reached down to guide me
The smile was sweet to see
I heard a sinner murmur
Oh Lord, have mercy on me.
It is Dante, isn’t it.