Dangerous Blues by Stephen Policoff

Review by Lisa del Rosso

In Stephen Policoff’s latest novel, the evocative Dangerous Blues, widower Paul Brickner, the not so much unreliable as increasingly unhinged narrator, is being haunted by the ghost of his dead wife, Nadia. Or is he? There are so many possibilities. It could be hallucinations, overwhelming grief (Nadia has died a few months before the novel begins, suddenly, at the age of thirty-five), madness, Tulpa (a magical creature that attains corporeal reality, having been originally imaginary), a rip in the space/time continuum.

Or, all of the above.

Paul is also father to twelve-year-old daughter, Spring. In order to escape the vast emptiness of their Upstate New York home, Paul and the bereft Spring decamp to a friend’s sublet in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. Spring takes to her new life in the city, to her new middle school. In the meantime, Paul dusts his friend’s many Ganeshas and has troubling Nadia visitations. At least the city is a good place for walks. He wanders into a club, sits his weary self down and listens to talented blues singer Tara White and her band. Something about her voice invites him to stay and talk to her. They connect, with good reason: Tara, who was raised in a cult, is also haunted by a past that refuses to stay in the past. She is a single mother to Irina, who is about Spring’s age and the two become fast friends.  But Tara has taken a totem that may or not be of great value from whence she came, and there are more than a few people who want it back and will take it back by any means necessary. So Tara, for her safety, disappears. Then reappears. Before Paul can decide whether he would like Tara to be a constant presence in his life, she disappears again. Rather like a ghost.

Policoff’s book shape-shifts: from parenting to an on-the-run caper to the supernatural, sprinkled with magic. But mainly, Dangerous Blues painstakingly navigates a man’s grief in the wake of his wife’s death; how he handles, or does not handle, grief.  Paul is self-deprecating. He is sometimes ridiculous. He is exhausted and overwhelmed and inadvertently funny. Grief has unmoored him. He is literally and figuratively out of his natural habitat: “And not for the first time in my life, I wonder about all the things we see and all the things we believe we see, and what, if anything, is the difference.”

The novel is peopled with other family members who, while not haunted, are not doing that much better than Paul.  There is Pearl, Paul’s impeccably dressed, imperious mother-in-law, who cannot bear to hear her dead daughter’s name, and is not open to questions on the subject, even from her granddaughter: “Pearl . . .” Spring says. She stops, bites her lip. “What do you think happens to people after they die? Can they see us? Can we see them? Do they remember us the way we remember them?”

Pearl is, however, on excellent terms with vodka. She is not on excellent terms with her ex-husband, Dr. Maire, who deserted her and Nadia in a London hotel thirty years ago. Dr. Maire has a habit of showing up to the apartment unannounced, which initially irks Paul, but only so much because he visits to see Spring, “arguably the only living creature he has ever truly loved.”

Though Paul was married to his daughter for twelve years, he still calls him Dr. Maire, “scholar of the uncanny, author of innumerable—and often unreadable—books, articles, monographs on esoteric subjects ranging from Tibetan bardo lore to alien abduction.”  In this, his pontificating and theories as to what Paul is going through come in handy, if at least for the purposes of amusement. But as Paul watches him move toward him,  “He looks more stooped than the last time I saw him. It occurs to me that I have no idea how old he is or how well he is or how he has lived with the pain of losing his only child.”

What Pearl and Dr. Maire have in common, other than despising each other, is a love for Spring, so they must at least display a pretense of tolerance, for one expensive, eventful Thanksgiving.           

Policoff is a master of observation, of humanity’s frailties and foibles. Witness this, early on from Paul: “My father stroked his chin whenever he was lost in thought —or affecting to be lost in thought to avoid listening to me. It was a gesture I disdained. At around thirty-eight, when I realized that I was stroking my chin while Nadia circled around the topic of where we should live after Spring was born, stroking my chin to present the image of paying attention, I felt what can only be described as an electric throb of mild self- disgust.”

There are no tidy endings in Dangerous Blues, which is as it should be. It is a progression of the surreal and the mundane: of PTA meetings Paul never thought he would have to attend; of an epiphany with a silvery skater, who may or may not exist, in a crappy bike park. And increasing, unsettling visions of Nadia.

“The only urge in my life stronger than the need for love has been the need to erase that need.”  That is what grief has done to Paul. Nadia was the love of his life. To embrace love knowingly means you also knowingly embrace the loss to come. But the need for connection, for contact, the need to be understood, is a constant. Paul, in a moment of realization, alluding to his daughter, and Tara, and the other all too human people in Dangerous Blues: “Someday, maybe, I’ll realize I’m not the only one on earth who struggles.”