BOOK BEAT Naples Sun Times January 2-8, 2008
by Philip K. Jason
Neapolitan G. P. Walmsley provides a racy, colorful entertainment with his first novel, “The Virtuoso: A Love Story in Scarlet.” The story takes readers through about three decades, tracing the life of John (or “Jack”) Dupree from his days as a wartime New Orleans street kid of eleven through his ups and downs as a musician, friend, lover, and human being. The part of the portrait that illumines Jack’s coming of age in the 1950s, a section that includes his service in the Korean War, is even better at capturing the feel of a decade than the delineation of the other periods – and this sense of time and place (including St. Louis and New York) is always keen.
Jack’s early education takes place in the saloons and jazz clubs of his native city, and his passion for jazz, still mainly the province of black musicians, is matched only by his passion for women. His sexual experience begins early, and it continues to define him through the decades the follow. Walmsley draws this formative New Orleans milieu quite convincingly, and along the way he probes the racial tensions of the times. He also probes the dynamics by which racial barriers give way to mutual respect among dedicated, skilled musicians in the world of blues and jazz.
The world of nightclubs, whether sleazy or posh, is interwoven with the world of prostitution. Jack lives in that world as well. When his mother dies, Jack moves on to live with an aunt who is a madam in St. Louis. Soon enough, he meets her friend Sophia, also in that trade, with whom he has a most passionate and complex relationship. Sophia supports, marries, and occasionally torments the much younger hero, helping him to realize his dreams of becoming a top-level musician. Along the way, Jack is transformed into John, and he temporarily puts aside the jazz clarinet for the classical piano. Private tutors, Julliard, minor league competitions and concerts, and an ambitious agent-manager bring Dupree to the threshold of fame and fortune.
Though Sophia tries to bury her past and develops a successful Manhattan boutique, criminal prosecutions for prostitution and tax evasion threaten her – and thus threaten her husband’s chance at the gold ring. In part for this reason, they decide to divorce, but the reader learns of other motives as well. Incidentally, Walmsley’s background in law enforcement adds credibility to several aspects of his plot.
As much as he cares for Sophia, Jack/John Dupree is tempted by other women, and he strays. Sophia has secrets as well, which I’ll leave for readers to discover.
What Walmsley does best is project the ecstatic moments of creative release – those times when an artist achieves a transcendent state. Both implicitly and explicitly, Walmsley likens this ultimate euphoria to sexual release. There’s nothing new in this comparison, but the author evokes it with skill and force.
He also does a fine job in creating a rich collection of minor characters, including Cotton Blanchard, a wise, caring black musician who becomes Dupree’s mentor and father figure. Dupree’s Aunt Clara is also well-drawn, as is Sophia’s lawyer and a young female violinist named Laura.
What does not serve Walmsley or the reader well is the extremely high proportion of technical errors in the writing: misused words, faulty punctuation, words and phrases set in italics for no good reason, and grammatical lapses of all kinds riddle the narrative and almost undermine Walmsley’s accomplishment as a story-teller. I say “almost” because the vigor of the work and the appeal of his characters and plot line somehow rise above these frequent distractions. It is unintentionally ironic that G. P. Walmsley actually offers thanks for editorial assistance. If only he had received skilled professional help, “The Virtuoso” could have been so much better. The patient, forgiving reader can still enjoy a sexy, high-powered thrill ride with rich nostalgia for decades past.
“The Virtuoso” is available from online book dealers, including the publisher authorhouse.com.
Philip K. Jason, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of English from the United States Naval Academy. A poet, critic, and free-lance writer with twenty books to his credit, this “Dr. Phil” chairs the annual Naples Writers’ Conference and Authors & Books Festival presented by the Naples Press Club.