Breaking Open the Heart in Bix's Trumpet and other stories by Dave Margoshes
Bix's Trumpet and other stories. Dave Margoshes. Edmonton: NeWest Press, 2007. ISBN 1897126182
David Margoshes' 2007 collection of short stories Bix's Trumpet and other stories is a satisfyingly subtle and nuanced examination of the ways individuals reach out to others, and the obstacles that can prevent them from truly knowing one another. There are no answers in these short stories, no simple ways to successfully interact with people. Instead, Margoshes offers examples that illustrate the manifold ways to fail—and, happily, to succeed—at connecting to other people.
The first story in the collection, the titular "Bix's Trumpet," is about the volatile friendship between the narrator and the narrator's friend, Bix. Bix, we learn, temporarily owns a cornet (a kind of trumpet) that once belonged to the jazz musician Bix Beiderbecke, after whom he is also named. The stories of the fictional Bix and the real Bix Beiderbecke are intertwined—both are charismatic musicians with unstable and troubled personal lives. Beiderbecke died at the age of 28, and the Bix in the story burns out at a young age, a symbolic death for a wild young man. The short story is itself divided into a series of vignettes that describe the passionate and strange friendship between the narrator, Leo, and the mercurial Bix. No details are given outside the vignettes, creating an imperfect picture of the characters. The reader is called to exercise her imagination in completing the picture. I felt in this story, as in many of the others, that a complete and compelling illustration of character is sacrificed in order to portray moments, sensations, and emotions that never resolve into a full character. The narrative, which jars and twists and doubles back on itself, as though curled up to avoid more pain, is the real reward in this story. In this way, "Bix's Trumpet" sets the tone for the entire collection.
The title story, and many others in this collection, draws attention to the power of inanimate objects in the lives of the characters. Bix's trumpet, as an object, is given symbolic meaning when it is both won (in a craps game, by Bix's father) and lost (when it hangs, unplayed, above a mantle). The symbol is subtly crafted: at various times it symbolizes Bix's potential as a musician, his liveliness and spontaneity, his inability to fully connect with other people, and his struggle to find an authentic self. In the second story, "Pornography," the narrator's dead stepfather's handwritten pornography comes to represent the unknowable and mysterious aspect of every person, and it haunts both the narrator and his mother as they struggle to reconcile its existence with the gentle poet they knew the stepfather to be. The specter of leftover texts also haunts the narrator of "A Man of Distinction," whose dead grandfather left behind a trunk of papers which includes two mysterious books in Hebrew. Some of the objects are larger, like the lake in "A Lake Named For Daddy," in which a teenaged daughter visits the lake named for her father, killed in the Second World War. This story includes the more homely rocking horse made by the father Gwen never knew, which surprisingly seems to reflect the distance Gwen feels from her father. In the end, it is the cold embrace of the lake, arbitrarily named after her dead father and which he never visited himself, where she finds a kind of communion with her father despite his perceived abandonment. Objects, for many of Margoshes' characters, represent a way for the living to connect with the dead, and sort out the complications of the relationship between the living person and the dead.
Relationships between the living can be as complicated, tragic, or finally fulfilling as those between the living and the dead, a fact not lost on Margoshes' characters. The odd couple in "Comfort" represent the inevitable complications that arise when two people's lives entwine. Violet and Emily, two women in their fifties, live together and share a bed, although they do so platonically, for convenience and companionship. A story ostensibly about finding sheets soft enough for Violet's delicate skin reveals the complications in this supposedly uncomplicated relationship. Emily gazes at Violet "frankly, her eyes filled with amusement and, Violet thought, perhaps something else." Violet lies awake, wrapped in the new sheets, her skin comfortable, "yet somehow burning, burning" after a flirtatious encounter with a former student turned linens salesman. In the end, the story is about the inevitable loss of comfort, and the impossibility of stability in a world that is endlessly changing. The minor tragedy in the story "The Gift" also speaks to the difficulty people can have in connecting to one another. The main plot of this story centres around Gerry, who has decided to find a gift for Lorna, whom he has decided to unexpectedly visit. The conflict and confusion Gerry experiences in his search for the perfect gift is almost too reminiscent of James Joyce's short story "Araby" to be entirely coincidental. In the end, Gerry has an epiphany similar to that of Joyce's protagonist, realizing with a kind of profoundly resigned despair that he has misread the situation and failed to capture the heart of his intended object.
Perhaps one of the most unexpectedly engaging stories in the collection is "Promises." The story, narrated in the first person by a single mother, is about many things, including an apparently successfully relationship between the young woman named Jessie and Andre Walkingman. But the emotional impact of the story hinges on two events that the narrative skims over: the girl Jesse is sexually abused by her mother's boyfriend, and years later, Jesse's half-brother Aaron is sexually abused by another of their mother's boyfriends. Margoshes creates a surprisingly sympathetic voice in the mother. She is not in any way slick or intellectual, contrasting with many of the collection's other protagonists, and she comes off as unintelligent. But her simple love for her children, her incredibly bad luck in choosing men, and her perennial optimism come together to generate a picture of a hard-working single mother who is happy with her life and fiercely protective of her offspring. This is one of the few stories in the collection to feature a character who feels natural, and whose relationships and emotions are shown, not told, to the reader. There is a similarly engaging character in "A Young Lady from West Virginia," another unpretentious and non-intellectual female narrator, which suggests that stepping outside of a masculine and intellectual framework allows Margoshes to generate the most natural voices.
This collection is a challenging read for a number of reasons. The sheer variety of narrative styles, character types, and points of view means that the reader cannot simply pass from one story to the next. This collection is varied terrain, narratively speaking, and negotiating that terrain requires thoughtful reading. Quite aside from the form of these stories, the subject matter can be difficult. These are stories about pain, and in the most successful stories the reader is drawn into that pain along with the characters. Vicarious pain is not an easy thing, and although it can be rewarding, it can also be simply wearing on the reader. This is a collection to be read slowly, with breaks to pause and reflect both between stories and within stories.
Ultimately, Bix's Trumpet and other stories showcases the brilliant narrative that is possible in short works of prose, but it also occasionally falls into the difficulties associated with the short story genre. Margoshes has not yet mastered the art of precise and compact language that is desirable in short stories. However, his fascinating insight into some of his characters, his virtuosity in varying tones and perspectives, and his rich, dense narrative make the collection very satisfying.