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Dust Jacket Information

The New York Times Book Review praised the characters in Jon Hassler's last novel, Dear James, as "so exquisitely rendered that even first-time visitor to Staggerford will come to love them as old friends." Now, in Rookery Blues, Hassler once again brings to life an oddball group of Midwesterners as they brace themselves and each other for the turmoil of the late 1960s on a small college campus.

Rookery, Minnesota, is about as far north as you can go and still be in the United States, and Rookery State College is an academic backwater if ever there was one. The campus is populated by students seeking draft deferments during the height of the Vietnam War and misfit teachers who can't get a job anywhere else. Even so, some of the faculty at Rookery State long for a meeting of the minds, the companionship of soulmates.

And then, one frigid afternoon, the Icejam Quintet is born in the improbable basement apartment of Neil Novotny, an unkempt English instructor and obsessed novelist. With Leland Edwards on piano, Neil on clarinet, Victor Dash on drums, and Connor on bass, the group comes together with the help of its muse, the lovely Peggy Benoit, who plays saxophone and sings. The most gifted and spirited of the bunch, Peggy instills the harmony that allows the Icejammers to produce the kind of jazz they've all dreamed of playing, bringing them satisfaction they never thought they'd experience.

But even isolated Rookery State will be touched by the great discontent sweeping the country. News of a salary freeze electrifies the rabble-rousing Victor, and the first labor union in history comes noisily to campus. As a teachers' strike takes shape, threatening both the draft-dodging students and the complacent administration, the five musicians must struggle with their loyalties to the school, the town, their families, and each other....

As he does in all his novels, Jon Hassler infuses the story of this unlikely collection of eccentrics with wry wit, deep feeling, and ultimately, his faith in human beings to endure despite their own sadly comic foibles. Like his beloved Staggerford novels, Rookery Blues is about the sheer need for community that everyone harbors--even in the unlikeliest places.

Page One

"Before they became the Icejam they were three men setting out on a fishing trip in an old convertible with a leaky top, and another man sitting on a threadbare couch in his basement apartment feeding grapefruit sections to a woman with pretty eyes.

The three men in the car were moving along a snowy residential street in the vicinity of Rookery State College while listening to a news bulletin on the radio--the Soviet Union had sent another cosmonaut into orbit.

The man in the basement, whose name was Neil Novotny, was listening to Peggy Benoit's life story. With only one spoon between them, they were taking turns feeding each other. The grapefruit sections had been soaking in wine overnight.

"Then we weren't together a year when he left me," she said with a bitter little laugh. "He took our television and our hi-fi and half our wedding silver and some of my jewelry and he drove away in our car, leaving me without transportation."

"What a jerk," said Neil Novotny, his eyes fastened admiringly on Peggy, whose hair was a very black shade of black and whose brown Mediterranean eyes (Spanish? Italian?) were large and penetrating. She had rather large lips, and he wanted to kiss them. Today she wore a navy pea coat over her green wool dress. Her earrings were little silver keys. At twenty-nine, Dr. Peggy Benoit was the bright new star of Rookery State's music department. She directed the college choir, gave lessons in voice, assisted the band director, and taught a popular class in Music Appreciation. She was the cousin of a cousin of Neil's, related to him by marriage, not by blood."

Reviews

Hassler takes leave of the denizens of Staggerford and visits the facinating magic of his wryly observed insights upon a motley collection of junior professors at Rookery State College, a sort of puratory for academic misfits in the remote northwoods of Minnesota... Skillfully skewering academic intrigue, basic human foibles and the upheavals of the 1960's, Hassler has produced an uproariously funny, wonderfully satisfying sendup of academic tomfoolery.
                                               --Pubishers Weekly
                                                     May 22, 1995

Tongue firmly in cheek, Hassler cheerfuly sends up student unrest, inane college bureaucrats, and other academic idiosyncracies both universal and peculiar to the 60s. Remote RookeryState College is the unlikely place where Neil Novotny, lousy English teacher and mediocre unpublished novelist, comes upon the idea of starting a jazz quintet. With the help of Peggy Benoit, Neil's muse and out-of-reach love, he recruits a cast of eccentrics from a town and state full of same: Leland Edwards, slavishly devoted to his mother (with whom he still lives), will play the piano -- and a mean piano it is; Connor, a painter lured away from a Minneapolis private college, plucks the bass; Peggy plays the clarinet; and Victor Dash the drums. The five make music against a backdrop of 60s shenanigans, as when Victor becomes campus leader of the Faculty Alliance of America, a neophyte union urging the faculty to strike (salaries have been frozen for two years). The novel goes on in this vein: bright, antic, and vivid, with lots of deadpan humor, romantic and political intrigue, affectionate reversals of fortune. Just when it seems that Neil will be fired because students arrange their schedules to avoid his class and because he isn't published, Conner arranges for Emerson Tate, a Minneapolis critic connected with a small press, to rewrite Neil's novel into a historical romance. With a supporting cast of characters who almost always amuse and entertain, Hassler's comic formula remains fresh, even as the strikes fails and the caravan moves on.
Hassler displays once again why he's the novel's answer to Garrison Keillor. This may not be Lucky Jim, but it's worthy to be mentioned in the same breath.
                                                 --Kirkus Reviews
                                                      May 1, 1995

On a cold day in 1969, faculty members at Minnesota's Rookery State College form the Icejam Quintet. As musicians,they create exquisite harmonies, but troubles plague their personal and professional lives. The unlikely combo includes an alcoholic painter with a chronically depressed wife, an obsessed novelist who is comically ill prepared for class, an English teacher who aspires to be a strike organizer, a middle-aged professor still dominated by his flamboyant mother, and a beautiful vocalist whose ex-husband distributes her nude photograph to college officials. Many other memorable characters populate Hassler's ... novel, and he treats even the least attractive with bemused respect. In several scenes he provides academic comedy as exquisite as that of Kingsley Amis, but he also examines serious consequences of the war in Vietnam, adolescent rebellion, and a campus strike. Hassler dramatizes rifts in freindships, families, and communities but celebrates the values that hold people together. Highly recommended.
Albert E. Wilhelm, Tennessee Technological Univ. Cookeville
"This is an uncorrected proof of a review scheduled for Libray Journal June 1, 1995."
 

 

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