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  • Stephen Altman

Blues for the Muse: An (overlong) Introduction

First, hello and welcome!

Now, then. The difference between Blues for the Muse and just about every other novel you've read is this: Blues for the Muse is written in verse. It's composed of 202 sonnets. Each has 14 lines, and they rhyme. The sonnet form goes back seven or eight hundred years (Shakespeare wrote 154 of them, a mere 4+ centuries ago). But mine are modern sonnets, written in a breezy style so that after you've read a few, to follow the action in verse will seem a very natural--and, let's hope, a pleasurable--thing to do. Here's a sample. We're at the start of the book, when we're first meeting Tom Jerome, who's visiting the Non-Catholic Cemetery in Rome. The poet John Keats is buried here. Jerome is feeling rather solemn and solitary:

He had a cemetery temperament, The melancholy muse inside his head That made of every moment some huge event In this, The Life of Tom Jerome. He had no dread Of anything but ordinariness. And then he saw the woman in the azure dress. I told this story in verse because I thought that if I did it right, readers would feel as if something not ordinary is happening, that a spell is being cast. So here's Jerome--who by the way is an older dude in Ray-Bans and this awful pompadour--deciding to approach the woman in the azure dress. She's here for a funeral: It was as if an ibis—something rare And unexpected—had alighted in Their midst. The regal neck, the lifted chin, The elegant indifference. Her arms were bare And slim, and Tom Jerome, imagining Them wrapped around him, smiled at his desire, Then promptly threw all prudence in the fire And joined the mourners gathered in a ring. Buon giorno,” said Jerome. She turned her head And saw the Ray-Bans and the smile . . . and fled! I'm hoping you'll want to know more about these two. He's a bit down at the heels but he's still got that Hollywood thing going for him, and she's the mysterious and alluring wife of an Italian mobster. Viña Fumento is her name. She tells him she's running away from her scary husband. Jerome senses certain romantic possibilities. When he catches up with her, she's smoking a cigarette on the bench at Keats's grave (which by the way is against the rules there--but our Viña's a rule breaker): . . . She had a knack For smoking operatically. He said, “Could you Spare me a cigarette? I need to buy a pack.” She found one in her bag. And now at last He gazed on Viña’s eyes. Renaissance Eyes. Florentine hair. All Italy’s past Glories in her face. No use in faking nonchalance: “Would you come dine with me? Who’d ever guess That we’d have met like this, and here? Say yes.”

So one thing, as they say, leads to another. Later that night, in their hotel room in the Aventine, Viña will all but tell him straight that she's bad news. Here's the sonnet in which she talks about herself, just so you'll get a sense of how long it'll take you to read 14 lines, and just how much those 14 lines can tell you about a character: “When I was fifteen, I was like a peach That all the local fellows have to squeeze— A peach that’s dangling on the tree, and each Competes to be the first to pluck it. Please, oh please, My mama begged me—Viña, don’t be weak! But I knew sometimes weak is strong. And was I wrong? A girl can have the world for just a song. I told her so; she dragged me off to speak With her physician. Such a kindly gentleman, A gray and proper Swiss, so full of sound advice. He reassured my mama, wished us luck, and then At midnight called me on the phone. He’d sacrifice His life for me—his work, his wife, and all he had. So I ran off with him. I’m very bad.” The next morning, two of her husband's thugs show up at the hotel room to retrieve her and dole out some consequences to Jerome. But he tells them he's a Hollywood director here in Rome to make a gangster flick. They'd be perfect for it, he says. And they buy it! As for Viña's reaction, she seems to treat all this as not much more than a day at the office. Then off she goes, with barely a word for Jerome. Like any good film noir heroine, she'll surprise our hero more than once. It'll surprise him even more that her husband, the notorious mobster Cesare Fumento, is a movie buff. And the reason his thugs let Jerome off the hook is they're aware of that. Cesare would like Jerome to make a movie for him--starring, of course, Viña herself. And Jerome? He's got the notion he can take Cesare's money and make off with his wife. As he'll tell her before too long: “Viña, this thing that we’ve been working on Is not some ordinary movie deal. I hope you understand, it’s just a con. We’re in it for your husband’s cash; it isn’t real.” That's how Blues for the Muse begins.


[The photo is a view of Keats's grave from the rear. The tombstone to the left is his friend Joseph Serern's. Keats's is to the right. The bench facing them, with the little brass plate on it, is the bench where Tom Jerome and Viña Fumento have their first conversation.]

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