THR Web Features   /   February 22, 2024

A Jazz Age Mystery in a Reimagined America

Francis Spufford’s Cahokia sits at the juncture of three cultures.

Alan Jacobs

( Painting by Roman Nogin/Shutterstock.)

Reviewed Here

Cahokia Jazz
Francis Spufford
New York, NY: Scribner, 2023.

Francis Spufford is one of England’s finest writers, but he is not nearly as well known on this side of the Atlantic as he should be, which is a shame for several reasons, not least of them the fact that he’s quite interested in us. He is also, I should add, a friend of mine—but my admiration for his writing long predates our friendship.

After making a name for himself as an essayist, memoirist, and cultural historian, Spufford initiated a great turn in his work with his 2010 book Red Plenty, which is a partly documentary, partly fictional account of life in the Soviet Union some 65 years ago. Having thus dipped his toes in the waters of novelistic writing, he leaped in with Golden Hill (2016), a wonderful and wholly unpredictable story about life in eighteenth-century New York City. This was followed in 2021 by Light Perpetual, a more expansive and deeply moving story of five lives—five lives that didn’t quite happen—in London, in the half-century or so following the Blitz. (It’s also an immensely nuanced and thoughtful account of social and technological change in that great city.) And now he has written a remarkable novel called Cahokia Jazz, a murder mystery but also an extraordinary social novel based on an immensely provocative alternative history.

Light Perpetual had also been a counterfactual history story, but counterfactual for only five people; the conceit of Cahokia Jazz is bolder. Here, in the second of his novels set in America, Spufford asks a simple question, a question whose simplicity conceals a powerful set of implications: What if the variety of smallpox that Europeans brought to the Americas in the age of exploration had been not variola major, which is deadly, but rather variola minor or alastrim, which is dramatically milder in its effects? This leads us to imagine a continent much more heavily populated by Native Americans, and therefore much more economically and culturally resilient. How might that scenario have played out?

One implication of that counterfactual thesis: that the Native Americans, comprised of many tribes with many languages, would have needed a lingua franca to facilitate economic and social interchange. In our own timeline, there actually was a good candidate for that role, the Mobilian Trade Jargon, which in Cahokia Jazz is developed into a full-fledged language called Anopa, which all the Native Americans in this book speak.

A further implication: that Cahokia, the city whose scant remains may be inspected at a site east of the Mississippi river in what is now southern Illinois, the city that was once perhaps the most important in North America, could have survived and flourished. (This one may seem more dubious, given that Cahokia seems to have been abandoned long before Europeans arrived in the region…but why shouldn’t it have been resurrected? Such renewals were in fact a part of its history.)

So Spufford’s Cahokia sits at the juncture of three cultures: that of Native Americans (here takouma); that of blacks (taklousa)—whose history in this timeline was just as cruel as in our own—and that of whites (takata). What that leads us to imagine in turn is an America whose experience of race is not overwhelmingly binary—wholly governed by the existence and then the abolition of slavery, with its Jim Crow aftermath—but rather triangular. It is an alternative history that leads to an alternative sociology, one in which centers of power vary from place to place and are constantly in tense negotiation and silent conflict with one another—conflict that only occasionally flares out into violence, as it does in this novel.

As a murder mystery Cahokia Jazz is superb, but as a kind of sociological imaginary it is even more impressive—and, above all, it builds this possible world around an awkwardly-situated protagonist: a young cop who lives uneasily at the juncture of these three cultures while belonging fully to none of them. To the takata Barrow is simply non-takata, an outsider, an Other; to the taklousa, among whom he lives, he is…very nearly one of them, his skill as a jazz pianist bringing him near the heart of their world; to the takouma he is a figure from folktale, Thrown-Away Boy, an outcast. And it is this third identity that Barrow recognizes as the closest approximation to his condition.

Even as the plot races along—the story is beautifully paced—we are always encouraged to think as it were sociologically, or anthropologically, about the characters. Joe Barrow is not the only displaced person in this world: For instance, we catch a brief and tantalizing glimpse of a group of White Russians on their way to Alaska, one of whom, with his tennis racket and butterfly net, just might remind us of someone we know. Racism is as present in this imagined world as it is in our own, but more variegated and diffracted. And there is a broken soldier of the Great War who never finds his mental and moral way home again.

It is therefore appropriate that, from time to time throughout this book, we encounter a distinguished visitor from California, an anthropologist profoundly interested in the Native American experience, named Alfred Kroeber. And even more appropriate that the book is dedicated to the memory of the most anthropologically literate and sensitive of novelists: Dr. Kroeber’s daughter, Ursula K. Le Guin. Cahokia Jazz may be read, and read with pleasure and profit, as a thriller. My hope is that more than a few American readers will take up its invitation to imagine this country differently.