‘Saint Monkey” alternates between the viewpoints of two girls who grow up black, homely, abandoned and poor in the mountains of gritty 1950s Kentucky. They carve out a friendship based on mutual loss. Audrey’s father was killed in Korea, and as a result she loses her mother to a bottomless bottle of Early Times whiskey. Caroline’s father murders her mother and is sent away to prison.
For the girls, Kentucky itself has become a prison, one of poverty and low expectations, and together they plot their escape. But only one has a ticket out. Audrey, called “Poindexter” by her friend because of Coke-bottle glasses and studious ways, is able to shake the church rafters with her piano playing. A New York booking agent overhears her performing at a funeral and in cut time the teenager is whisked into the heart of the Harlem jazz scene. Her childhood friend is left behind to fight the desperate fate of a black woman in a small Appalachian town. She lives vicariously with mounting jealousy through her friend’s letters, detailing a magical existence that both had dreamed of, and only one has achieved.
First-time novelist Jacinda Townsend skillfully introduces us to a world most of us know little about — that splendid Harlem of the late ’50s with its “magnificent Negroes” and their luxurious brownstones, the intellectuals and the artists. She takes us backstage at the Apollo and into the smoky, late-night clubs where the art of jazz is fashioned before our eyes. It is easy to understand how Carolyn might become bitter, reading her friend’s letters that casually drop such names as Basie, Brubeck, Monk and Coleman.
Townsend takes us on the club circuit down into the Jim Crow South to the beach hot spots of Nags Head. As the author realistically navigates her characters through the tumultuous times of the civil rights era, the reader is buffeted by the transformative waves of race and music in America.
Townsend’s use of regional dialogue is delightful, and she is strongest when she is creating settings that are at once historically vibrant and visually concrete. Unfortunately, the narrative often suffers from slow pacing. In addition, the two main characters whose grudging friendship serves as the focus for the novel never seem to develop further than the need to reactively wound each other, as only friends know how to do.
Jonathan Odell is a native Mississippian who has made Minneapolis his home. He is the author of two novels, “The View From Delphi” and “The Healing.”