Small, quiet book leaves big, lasting impression
By TERRY MATHEWS | News-Telegram Arts Editor
Apr. 12, 2007 - Sometimes, it’s not a best-selling author with a 550-page saga that delivers the goods. Sometimes, it’s a relatively unknown writer, slugging away in obscurity, that hits a home run.
One of my Internet book buddies suggested I try “Blue Lonesome,” a book published in 1995 by a new author named Bill Pronzini. The book is not long, only 207 pages, but the author manages to tell a compelling story that pulled me right in and didn't let me go until the mystery was solved.
The main character in “Blue Lonesome” is Jim Messenger. Messenger describes himself this way: “Name – James Warren Messenger; Age – 37; Height – 6 feet; Weight – 172 pounds; Eyes – Brown; Hair – Brown; Distinguishing features – None; Distinguishing physical characteristics – None; Employment – Certified public accountant; Length of employment – 14 years; Annual salary – $42,500; Possibility for advancement – Nil; Interests – Jazz; Special skills – None; Future prospects – None; Mr. Average. Mr. Below Average.”
Mr. Below Average’s life is bland, boring and going nowhere. He's been married once, but that was 17 years prior to the story and the union lasted a mere seven months. It ended when his ex-wife announced, “It just isn't working, Jimmy ... I think we'd better end it right now, before things get any worse between us.”
Messenger's activities are pretty much limited to work, running, listening to his vast collection of jazz records and eating his evening meal at a nearby neighborhood diner, the Harmony Café.
It's at the Harmony Café that Messenger first notices a fellow diner.
She’s always alone and seems so sad that “...if this were the 1930s and he had the talent of Jelly Roll Morton or Duke Ellington ... he would write a ballad about her. And he would call it ‘Blue Lonesome.’”
This was the name he gave her, how he thought of her from the beginning. But it was more than just a name, because she was more than just a woman alone. She was the saddest, loneliest person he'd ever encountered: pure blue, pure lonesome. The naked loneliness shocked him at first. He could not take his eyes off her. She didn't notice; she saw nothing of her surroundings. She came, she ate, she went. But she was never really there, in a café filled with other people. She was somewhere else – a bleak place all her own.
It takes Messenger three weeks to “screw up enough courage” to speak to Ms. Blue Lonesome. She makes it perfectly clear she wants nothing to do with Messenger, or any other human, for that matter. She never even looks at him as she rebuffs his advance. The rebuff does nothing to quench Messenger’s interest in the lonely woman. In fact, he becomes obsessed with her and conjures up reasons for her isolation. He even follows her home one night after dinner.
�So now he knew her name and where she lived. Janet Mitchell, 2391 48th Avenue, Apartment 2-B, San Francisco. And what good was this information? What could he do with it? It was irrelevant, really. The questions that mattered to him were inaccessible, closely guarded inside her glass shell.��
Messenger begins to worry about his interest in Ms. Blue Lonesome: “His was not an obsessive-compulsive personality; nothing like this had ever happened to him before. It was even more frustrating because he couldn’t understand what it was inside him that made him react to a stranger in this fashion. Their only common bond was loneliness, and yet hers, so acute and evidently self-destructive, repelled him as much as it fascinated him.”
When Janet Mitchell quits coming to the café, Messenger begins to worry. He goes to her apartment house and finds out from Mrs. Fong, the very agitated landlady that Ms. Blue Lonesome is dead.
�Sunday night. Sit in bathtub, cut her wrists with a razor blade . . . My building. She killed herself in my building. Terrible. You know how terrible it is to clean up so much blood?�
It is at this point that dull, boring and predictable Jim Messenger becomes unhinged. He talks to the police about Ms. Mitchell and finds that she’s very possibly a Jane Doe, as there is no record of a Janet Mitchell anywhere to be found, except a safe deposit box at the local Wells Fargo bank. “... stuffed full of cash, better than fourteen thousand in hundred-dollar bills." Messenger revisits the landlady, slips her forty dollars, and rummages through Ms. Blue Lonesome’s meager belongings. He finds nothing to lead him to her true identity, save a pocket watch engraved with “To Davey from Pop” and a long overdue book from the Beulah Public Library.
It’s at this point that “blue Lonesome” becomes a mystery, complete with a double murder, small town politics and a cast of characters that do not want Messenger poking around in their business.
How Messenger gets to the truth about Ms. Blue Lonesome’s past makes up the remainder of the novel, and his devotion to this woman and her memory is commendable. The only downside to the book is that childhood sexual abuse is at the core of the story. The subject has been covered ad nauseam. I wish authors would find another avenue. We’ve traveled this one enough.
�Blue Lonesome� is a compelling story. I especially liked Jim Messenger and admired his dogged determination to get to the truth of Janet Mitchell�s story. Like Messenger, I cared about her and wanted her to rest in peace.�
Pronzini has written more books, but none I’ve read leaves a lasting impression.