It’s 1922 in America, and all the things you might expect are here: morally ambiguous detectives; a city of smog and rumbling streetcars; cigarettes, jazz, typewriters; the Ku Klux Klan. But the world of Cahokia Jazz has an alternative history to our own. The specific difference, Francis Spufford explains in an author’s epilogue, was the type of smallpox brought across the Atlantic when the continent was colonised: a death rate of 1% rather than 30%, as in our world, means that the indigenous population of this America resisted.
There are well-thought out political and geographical results of this change, but these don’t particularly matter for the specifics of the novel, which is set entirely in Cahokia – a city which is still owned (just about) by its majority First Nation population. Our protagonist is Joe Barrow, a relative newcomer to Cahokia, an orphan, former jazz musician, war veteran, and now policeman. He is constantly recognised by the takouma (‘a person native to the Continent’) as one of their own – an identification which he resists ‘with a spurt of weary anger’. In our parlance, he is mixed-race: he has taklousa ancestry too (‘a person of African ancestry’). That doesn’t seem to matter. People constantly talk to him in Anopa, a constructed Indigenous language, and are surprised when he can’t understand them. ‘Ain’t you a takouma?’ What does it mean to be recognised as part of a group you don’t consider yourself to belong to?
The novel opens with the discovery of the body of a brutally murdered takata man (‘a person of European extraction’), with a word in Anopa scrawled across his forehead. A declaration of war, Barrow’s partner suggests. The sign of racial insurgence. But some things don’t add up, and as Barrow’s reluctant investigation unfurls so does his understanding of identity. He finds himself spending time with takouma leaders the Man of the Sun and his niece; he mixes with intellectuals and poets. (A nice moment mentions a letter from a ‘takata fellow from the city called Tom’ asking about ‘some Anopa phrases he wanted to put in his great work ’ – even in this alternative world, The Waste Land persists.) But even as Barrow becomes increasingly familiar with the takouma cause, perhaps sympathetic to it, his real passion — jazz — keeps bursting through. When Barrow plays piano, ‘everything else could wait’. These passages about music provide some of the best moments of prose in the book as everything transcends its grimy, foggy setting.
The strength of the detective genre, of course, is that nothing can wait. Barrow cannot escape the politics that claim him, and ultimately must choose between the job and his desire. But to boil Cahokia Jazz down to a genre novel about race is ‘only half the truth’. Its strength is in the rich detail that Spufford offers so freely. Give yourself in to the disorienting sense of stepping into a known-unknown world and Barrow’s wonder at what it has to offer — from ritual to rain — becomes yours.
Cahokia Jazz – Francis Spufford
Words: Alice Wickenden