The Supremes Sing the Happy Heartache Blues: A Novel by Edward Kelsey Moore
(Reprinted with permission from Black Pearls Magazine)
When a late life love affair blooms between Mr. Forrest Payne, the owner of the Pink Slipper Gentleman’s Club, and Miss Beatrice Jordan, famous for stationing herself at the edge of the club’s parking lot and yelling warnings of eternal damnation at the departing patrons, their wedding summons a legend to town. Mr. El Walker, the great guitar bluesman, comes home to give a command performance in Plainview, Indiana, a place he’d sworn—and for good reason—he’d never set foot in again.
But El is not the only Plainview native with a hurdle to overcome. A wildly philandering husband struggles at last to prove his faithfulness to the wife he’s always loved. And among those in this tightly knit community who show up every Sunday after church for lunch at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat, are the lifelong friends, known locally as “The Supremes” —Clarice, facing down her longing for, chance at and fear of a great career; Barbara Jean, grappling at last with the loss of a mother whose life humiliated both of them, and Odette, reaching toward her husband through an anger of his that she does not understand.
Edward Kelsey Moore’s lively cast of characters, each of whom have surmounted serious trouble and come into love, need not learn how to survive but how, fully, to live. And they do, every one of them, serenaded by the bittersweet and unforgettable blues song El Walker plays, born of his own great loss and love.
Edward Kelsey Moore Book Reviews
“This lusty novel sings with life, saluting friendships through dreams, marriage and long-held secrets.”
—Minneapolis Star Tribune, “Summer Books”
“Moore’s bluesy, breezy novel takes readers through life’s highs and lows and in-between times when no one knows what is coming next; its air of folksy optimism should appeal to fans of Alexander McCall Smith and Fredrik Backman.”
—Library Journal (starred review)
“Edward Kelsey Moore, besides being laugh out loud hilarious, has a profound understanding of human nature. This gift, combined with his clear love and affection for his characters, makes him a truly remarkable writer. This book is a joy to read.”
—Fannie Flagg, author of The Whole Town’s Talking and Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe
“Spending time with the Supremes is like slipping into a warm embrace of love and laughter, soul-searching and sass. There’s nothing these three strong women can’t handle, and that includes the legacy of the pain inflicted by fathers to sons, mothers to daughters. Edward Kelsey Moore has crafted a novel that beautifully illustrates the healing power of forgiveness.”
—Melanie Benjamin, author of The Swans of Fifth Avenue and The Aviator’s Wife
“The arrival of Edward Kelsey Moore’s new novel had me singing anything but the blues. Even better cause for celebration? Odette, Clarice, and Barbara Jean are back . . . and what a supreme encore it is!”
—Julia Glass, author of A House Among the Trees and Three Junes
Chapter 1 (Excerpt)
It was a love song. At least it started out that way. The lyrics told the tale of a romance between a man and the woman who made his life worth living. Being a blues song, it was also about how that woman repeatedly broke the man’s heart and then repaid his forgiving ways by bringing a world of suffering down on him. The beautiful melody soared and plunged, each verse proclaiming rapturous happiness and gut-wrenching pain. Here, in a church, this piece of music couldn’t have been further outside its natural habitat. But the tune’s lovely mournfulness echoed from the back wall to the baptismal pool and from the marble floor to the vaulted ceiling and settled in as if the forlorn cry had always lived here.
As the song continued and grew sadder with every line, I thought of my parents, Dora and Wilbur Jackson. The blues was Mama and Daddy’s music. Nearly every weekend of my childhood, they spent their evenings in our living room, listening to scratchy recordings of old-timey blues songs on the hi-fi. One of those might have been as sorrowful as the dirge ringing through the church, but I couldn’t recall hearing anything that touched this song for sheer misery.
Mama preferred her blues on the cheerier and dirtier side—nasty tunes loaded with crude jokes about hot dogs, jelly rolls, and pink Cadillacs. The gloomy ballads, like this one, were Daddy’s favorites. I never saw him happier than when he was huddled up with Mama on the sofa, humming along with an ode to agony. He would bob his head to the pulse of the music, like he was offering encouragement to a down-in-the-mouth singer who was sitting right next to him, croaking out his hard luck.
Sometimes, before sending me to bed, my parents would allow me to squeeze in between them. They’ve both been dead for years now, but their bad singing lingers in my memory. And, because I inherited their tuneless voices, I remind myself of my parents every time I rip into some unfortunate melody. Whenever I hear a melancholy blues, I feel the roughness of Daddy’s fingertips, callused by years of carpentry work, sliding over my arm like he was playing a soulful riff on imaginary strings that ran from my elbow to my wrist.
I’d be ordered off to bed when Mama’d had enough of the dreariness and wanted to listen to a record about rocking and rolling and loving that was too grown-up for my young ears.
Even though the song rumbling through the sanctuary would have been a bit dark for Mama’s taste, she’d have loved the singer’s wailing voice and the roller-coaster ride of the melody. And she wouldn’t have let this song go unnoted. If she had been in the church with me, she’d have turned to me and declared, “Odette, your daddy would’ve loved this song. Every single word of it makes you wanna die. I’ve gotta write this in my book.”
My mother’s “book” was a calendar from Stewart’s Funeral Home that she kept in her pocketbook. The cover of the calendar showed a gray-and-white spotted colt and a small boy in blue overalls. They were in a meadow, both of them jumping off the ground in an expression of unrestrained bliss. Above the picture were the words “Jump for Joy,” and below, “Happy thoughts to you and yours from Stewart’s Funeral Home.” Whenever Mama ran into something that she felt was remarkable enough to merit celebration, she wrote a note on that day’s date so she’d never forget it.
Mama’s book first appeared on a Sunday afternoon about ten years before she passed. We’d just walked out of our church, Holy Family Baptist, and Reverend Brown stood at the bottom of the front steps saying good-bye to his flock. Mama strode up to him and said, “Reverend, you’re the best preacher I’ve ever heard. I’ve been thinkin’ about your Easter sermon all spring. It was truly a wonder; really opened my eyes. I want you to know that you can consider this here soul a hundred percent saved.”
Reverend Brown, who was more than a foot taller than Mama, bent over and took her hand. “That’s so kind of you, Dora,” he said. “I’m just doing what I can for the Kingdom.”
“I mean it,” Mama said. “You’ve won this battle for the Lord. And I wanted to make sure to thank you, since I won’t be comin’ back.”
Reverend Brown hung on to Mama’s hand and waited for her to deliver the punch line to what he assumed was one of the peculiar jokes she was known to tell. But Mama wasn’t kidding. She explained, “Remember how you preached that if we really wanted to be closer to God, we should look at the world around us and write down a little thank-you to Him for all the things He gave us? Well, I took your words to heart and I’ve been doin’ that ever since.”
( Continued… )
Copyright © 2017 by Edward Kelsey Moore. All rights reserved. Book excerpt reprinted by permission of the author and publisher, Henry Holt and Co. Do not reproduce, copy or use without the author’s written permission. This excerpt is used for promotional purposes only.
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Intimate Conversation with Edward Kelsey Moore
Edward Kelsey Moore is the author of THE SUPREMES SING THE HAPPY HEARTACHE BLUES and the New York Times and international bestseller THE SUPREMES AT EARL’S ALL-YOU-CAN-EAT.
Edward’s award-winning essays and short fiction have appeared in the New York Times and a number of literary magazines, including Ninth Letter, Indiana Review, African American Review, and Inkwell. He currently writes a series of essays for Minnesota Public Radio.
In addition to his writing, Edward maintains a career as a professional cellist. Edward Kelsey Moore makes his home in Chicago, Illinois. His web address is http://www.edwardkelseymoore.com.
BPM: What made you want to become a writer? How long have you been writing?
I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was very young. From the moment I got my first library card, I loved fantasizing that my name was on the books on the library’s shelves. I started writing stories as soon as I could hold a pen and I never stopped. But I was sidetracked by a career in music and I didn’t get around to actually finishing any of my many writing projects until I was forty years old. That was when I gave myself a kick in the rear and started taking writing seriously.
BPM: How do you think you’ve evolved creatively?
I ask considerably more of myself now than I used to. Earlier in my writing career I thought it was enough to be funny, or sad, or just to get my point across. Now I want to challenge myself with everything that I write. In addition to producing good work, I want to be proud of the effect my writing has on the lives of the people who read it. As I try to become a better writer, I want to become a more responsible one.
BPM: Do you view writing as a kind of spiritual practice?
I wouldn’t describe writing as a spiritual practice for me, but I would say that writing fits into a broader belief that all the things in my life must be in harmony with my personal spirituality. That’s one of the nice things about having begun my literary career in middle age. Experience has taught me not to waste my time on anything that brings disharmony and negativity into my life. If writing weren’t the right thing for me, I wouldn’t do it.
BPM: How has writing impacted your life?
Writing has had such a powerful impact on me that it’s hard for me to think of an area of my life that it has not affected. On the day-by-day level, since writing replaced music as my primary focus, I see my surroundings differently. It’s natural for me now to immediately set about translating the things that I see and experience into words. I used to do that after a long period of reflection. These days, it’s my first reaction to the world around me.
Also, because of the success of my first novel, people react differently to me than they used to. I was shocked to discover that having “bestselling author” attached to my name meant that people were far more inclined to actually listen to the things I said. I have to think more carefully before I open my big mouth now and that has taken some getting used to. But, as problems go, having people pay attention to you is a high-class problem to have.
BPM: What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your books?
I’ve been surprised to discover how little my view of the world has changed over the decades. Because I saved so many of the unfinished stories and essays that I gave up on during my younger days, I occasionally go back to them for ideas. When I do, I find that I laughed at the same things forty years ago that I laugh at now and that the same topics frighten or move me. There’s not a lot of difference between me in my fifties and me at fifteen.
BPM: Tell us about your most recent work. Available on Nook and Kindle?
My latest novel, The Supremes Sing the Happy Heartache Blues, continues the story of the friendship of three women from a fictional small town in southern Indiana that began with my first novel, The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat. At the start of The Supremes Sing the Happy Heartache Blues, Odette Henry and her two best friends, Barbara Jean and Clarice, the Supremes of the title, are in a church, listening to a song that is very much out of place there. Within days, that song, “The Happy Heartache Blues,” and its singer, El Walker, will impact the lives of Odette and her friends in distinctly different, but very powerful, ways. Soon fearless Odette is frightened to find that she no longer understands her beloved husband. Beautiful, wealthy Barbara Jean is forced to relive memories of her painful and humiliating childhood.
And Clarice, a former musical prodigy, finds herself on the verge of a career breakthrough. But her panic over possibly achieving everything she ever dreamed of can only be soothed by hopping into bed with her husband, whom she can otherwise barely stand to be around. Now the Supremes have to rely upon their friendship more than ever as each of them is forced to re-examine her most intimate relationships and to wrestle with the importance and the meaning of forgiveness.
Along the way, they also encounter a wisecracking, gender-fluid nightclub performer, some pesky old adversaries, and the ugliest baby in the world.
BPM: Give us some insight into your main characters. What makes each one so special?
The novel is told primarily from the points of view of Odette and her friends, Barbara Jean and Clarice. Odette is funny and fearless, but as the novel progresses, she sees a side of her beloved husband that she can’t joke away, and it terrifies her. After a life shaped by loss, Barbara Jean is happy for the first time in her life, but her difficult past hasn’t prepared her to accept happiness. Clarice finds herself with the perfect husband for the woman she used to be. But the woman Clarice is now can’t stand the man she spent decades hoping her husband would become. Each of the Supremes has a special connection to El Walker, an elderly blues man whose talent for composing a sad song is only surpassed by his knack for making a mess of his life and the lives of others.
BPM: What was your hardest scene to write, the opening or the close?
The opening scene was considerably more difficult to write than the final scene. Asking a reader to step into a world you’ve created is tricky. There are so many ways to mess it up and cause the reader to turn away. The ending, on the other hand, felt natural as I was writing it. If the preceding chapters accomplish what they’re supposed to, the ending should have a feeling of inevitability. I hadn’t planned on the novel ending exactly as it did, but when I got to the closing scene, it felt like the only way for the book to end.
BPM: Is there one subject you would never write about as an author?
I won’t go so far as to say that I would never write about any subject. But I will say that there are subjects that I’m not currently interested in adding my voice to. I feel that literature about African Americans is too often about oppressors and the degradation and injustices they perpetrate, instead of being about the Black characters who are ostensibly at the center of the books. I understand why writers return so often to these topics, but I also feel that having this as the default mode of writing about African Americans limits the variety of ways in which Black people are portrayed. I don’t see the need for my words to be added to that particular pool.
BPM: What projects are you working on at the present?
I’m working on a novel about a family trying to cope with two tragic losses. I believe that no one truly survives a catastrophe without humor, so it’s a funny novel about people dealing with horrible circumstances.
I’m also tinkering with a play that I started a long time ago. Right now it’s mostly an excuse to procrastinate while I’m supposed to be writing the new novel. But I’m having so much fun with the play that I just might finish it.
BPM: How can readers discover more about you and your work?
Readers can find the most up-to-date information about me at http://www.edwardkelseymoore.com. I’m on Twitter at @edkmoore. Readers can connect with me on Facebook at Edward Kelsey Moore, author.