Book Review: ‘Cahokia Jazz,’ by Francis Spufford

CAHOKIA JAZZ, by Francis Spufford

Reader, let me ask you a question. How much work are you willing to do to dive into a new novel? Do you want to step into a speculative world frustratingly close to our own? Do you want to spend time in an imaginary city constructed with the world-building minutiae of a high fantasy novel? Do you want to engage with new forms of government and religious sects? Are you cool if there’s foreign language peppered throughout? How about the Klan? A Red scare? A nascent F.B.I.? A love story? Do you also want jazz? And do you want all of this to be part of a detective novel?

Your answers to the above will dictate how much you buy into Francis Spufford’s new novel, “Cahokia Jazz.”

“Cahokia Jazz” presents an alternate America in which the variant of smallpox introduced to the United States during the Columbian Exchange was less deadly, conferred immunity after infection and didn’t decimate the Native population.

The story takes place in the 1920s, in a reimagined version of the ancient Indigenous city of Cahokia. In our real world, Cahokia was abandoned and all that’s left of the settlement are its famed mounds, which have become a UNESCO site; in Spufford’s alternate history, Cahokia grew into a booming 20th-century metropolis filled with Native, white and Black citizens — takouma, takata and taklousa in the language of the novel. The takouma are Catholic, having been converted in the early 17th century by a Jesuit priest clever enough to draw a straight line between the Holy Trinity and the Native religion. Cahokia is part of the Union, although the rest of the country seems lukewarm about its statehood. (Smallpox immunity aside, how these Native people managed to avoid white America’s genocidal imperative is a mystery mysteriously not part of the plot.)

One wintry night, Detective Joe Barrow, who is half-takouma and half-taklousa, and his takata partner, Phin Drummond, are summoned to examine a dead body on top of the Land Trust building in Cahokia. The victim is Fred Hopper, a takata with Klan affiliations who appears to have been murdered in a ritualized killing that seems to be styled after ancient Aztec sacrifices. Is this an actual ritualistic murder or is it a political setup to frame the city’s Catholic takouma as idol-worshiping savages in a complicated attempt to undermine them in the eyes of white America? It’s going to take a 400-page trip through every corner and gin joint in town to find out.

Barrow, new in town and unfamiliar with the Native language (too much is made of this fact), traverses every inch of Cahokia, from the takata shanties where he’s unwelcome to the predominantly takata Union Club, where he’s also unwelcome. He’ll talk up the case with the city’s takouma leaders in smoky jazz clubs. He’ll take fire from several Tommy guns and flee a Klan rally. He’ll be forced to consider, and then reconsider, the city’s nebulous racial alliances and question the morals of members of his own police force. And, in the tradition of any decent noir, he’ll find himself falling for the wrong woman.

Inevitably, a detective noir set in a speculative American province filled with an Indigenous population, and featuring a half-Indigenous detective, will recall Michael Chabon’s “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” a great book that also trips over its obsessive details. (Perhaps to cushion this comparison, Spufford nods to Chabon’s Sitka early on.) Yet the complex political setup here owes more to James Ellroy’s hyper-stylized Underworld U.S.A. trilogy than to Chabon.

Reading Ellroy can be delightful, dizzying and at times disorienting, but the Demon Dog pulls off his high-wire act by anchoring his gritty, gonzo stories with actual events — the Bay of Pigs, the J.F.K. assassination. You can get lost in the wild-style prose or the maddening plot, your choice, without having to constantly unlearn or relearn basic historical facts. That’s a luxury that Spufford doesn’t allow himself. Spufford’s well-imagined world requires constant building and that, alas, smothers the plot. Before we can understand each step of Barrow’s investigation, we must learn another rule of this city, which is governed by political figures, as well as two spiritual leaders: the Man of the Sun (a wealthy Harvard-educated takouma with a Boston Brahmin accent) and his niece, the Moon — a Jazz Age moll who can stitch up your wounds and cut out your heart.

The world of Cahokia is rich and complex, racially, politically and spiritually. Spufford does a nice job with the emotional tug of war between the native Cahokian religion and the superimposed Catholicism. Unfortunately, these details drown the investigation, which is often rendered in a pitter-patter exposition that can make Barrow seem downright naïve.

“Cahokia Jazz” is a novel of dualities, something that is both its triumph and its shortcoming. No one is quite who they seem or want to be, which is simultaneously interesting and infuriating. There are cops who want to be jazz musicians, tabloid reporters who are poets, poets who are scientists. The Indigenous population is both Catholic and not. Most of the bad guys and girls aren’t exactly bad, which puts them squarely in line with the usual suspects who populate canonical noir. But the noir itself is hidden under so many layers of ceremonial dress that you may feel as if you are excavating one of the actual Cahokia mounds. And that, my friend, just might be too much work for me.

CAHOKIA JAZZ | By Francis Spufford | Scribner | 436 pp. | $28

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