As Tom Williams showed us in The Mimic’s Own Voice, identity is a curious thing. Imagine if the only way to be who you are is to pretend to be someone you are not. That’s what we’ve got going in his newest book, Don’t Start Me Talkin‘.
Silent Sam, the young narrator of Don’t Start Me Talkin’, is the protégé of Brother Ben, the last ‘True Delta Bluesman.’ He’s brother ben’s harp (harmonica) player. They’re out on what may be Brother Ben’s last tour. However, the situation is much more complicated than it appears:
But it’s Brother Ben and Sam Stamps, AKA Silent Sam, who ride in the back of a Yellow Cab driven by a tense and quiet white man. We’re not in character for his benefit. Though we’re not playing a gig in L.A., we’ll be performing as soon as we arrive at Silver Screen Motors, the vintage car lot where Ben buys all his touring vehicles…. What we need from Habib is a machine that inspires dropped jaws when we pull up to the various concert halls where we’ll perform. Part of his myth is that he’s deathly afraid of flight, so Ben’s MO has always been to drive himself to venues. And for the same reason he plays paw shop acoustics and dresses us both in the most garish rags of man made material, the only cars he believes his loyal fans—the blues faithful, he calls them—want to see him behind the wheel of are Cadillacs and Lincolns, maybe a Pontiac if it’s long, with chrome that blinds and fins so sharp they’ll wound a careless finger. Back home in Biloxi, where none of his condo-association neighbors know him as anything but Wilton Mabry, a retiree who’s always up for eighteen, a Volvo quietly resides in his garage.
Brother Ben has shown Sam Stamps the ropes of being a bluesman. Or, rather, Wilton Mabry has shown Peter Owens, a college educated young man raised in a Detroit suburb, the ropes. What are the ropes? Feigning a background as a Mississippian with barely a high school education. Why? Because that’s whom people have to think he is to be in order to play “the True Delta Blues.”
The sham bothers Sam/Peter, and it’s not the only thing that bothers him. It disturbs him that their audiences are almost entirely composed of the sort of white Americans who don’t really seem to get it, people who need him to be the image he projects. They wouldn’t listen to Peter Owens or Wilton Mabry. But, whether he likes the situation or not, this is just what he has to do.
Mind you, clueless white fans aren’t the only ones for whom he has to project an image. He even carefully prepares an image, a quite different one, for his own mother:
Now, in my hotel room, my mother examines the results of her encouragement of my harp-playing, her eyes roaming for some item she won’t approve of. That’s why I took the precaution of hiding everything. In this room nothing of Silent Sam is displayed, that no account bluesman she either tolerates or loathes. Which meant that, except for the furniture, the room’s pretty much empty. I’ll let her impose her vision of who Peter should be on the blank screen so she can walk away feeling she, a single mother, did what she needed with her only child.
But, what is the real Sam/Peter? Any definition I could come up with seems incorrect, overly simplistic. Instead, I think this excerpt sums him up best:
One Sunday, the DJ played Slowhand Clapton’s “Eyesight to the Blind”—from the soundtrack of Tommy, a popular midnight movie among the stoner set—then Sonny Boy’s original. The sheer sound, so rough and raw and real, reached inside and shook me. I didn’t know how anyone could have made the sounds Sonny Boy did. I almost believed those trills and slides emanated from within, like song from a bird. Plus, I knew instantly, unlike with Jimmy Hendrix on the same station, that Sonny Boy was black. And I wanted to learn how to kick up such a racket myself.
In short, Peter Owens is as much of a projected image as Silent Sam is. Neither one truly encompasses and describes the narrator. What is real for him is the blues and his friendship with Brother Ben, the rest being the various faces he has to present to various people in order to live out what is within him.
Of course, this shouldn’t be a completely foreign a concept for people. Much of life is presenting an image we have decided upon. I think most people have a variety of different selves they put forth at different times, and I doubt any of those selves are ‘real.’ We aren’t the same at work as we are with our families, or with our friends. We aren’t the same when we walk by a cop as we are when we pass a serious biker bar. People naturally play roles and sometimes get lost within those roles.
Williams gets deep in this novel, often more so in the spaces between the words than in the words themselves. I know nothing about the blues, but both the voice and thoughts of the narrator ring true in this book. There’s a kind of quiet sadness about it, but it’s the kind that makes you feel content and satisfied to hear. Don’t Start Me Talkin’ really is an impressive book.