Steve Martin once noted that "talking about music is like dancing about architecture." It's difficult to make interesting statements about music without losing hold of the essence of the art itself. It's even more difficult to do so with only the written word, without the benefit of sound. It's tempting to devolve into using musical jargon in an effort to describe the music, or to recite biographical anecdotes in order to make sense of the musician's place in their world, but both seem inadequate to the task of conveying the feel of experiencing the music as a phenomenon and getting to the heart of what it is to be a musician.
This all changed when Lafler started work on his first Bughouse short story and began publishing individual issues. When his work was picked up by Top Shelf, he received the editorial guidance needed to tighten up and organize his stories a bit more, and the results of this collaboration have been spectacular.
The books are the story of sax player Jimmy Watts and the rise of his bop combo Bughouse. Lafler employs a number of devices to make this more than a straight-ahead narrative about some musicians. First off, he made the decision to draw all of the characters as anthropormorphic insects. This was a key move, because this adds a fictive layer necessary not for distancing the audience from the characters, but rather to provide a slightly fantastic context for some of Lafler's more unusual narrative moves. One might call aspects of the story magical realism, and the fact that the reader can accept the characters as bugs makes accepting other aspects of the story much easier. The second major device Lafler uses is a time and narrative fractioning. The story begins with the death of a major character, zips back to the beginning with Jimmy Watts as a child, and frequently takes side trips to the future, where we meet Jimmy's child (who has become a member of the band) and grandchild.
With the audience already accustomed to expecting the unexpected, Lafler throws in visions, hallucinations, magic, time distortion, doppelgangers and other weirdness that is all firmly rooted in the narrative, yet has a profound effect on each character. Every hallucination is very real in its own way, and these jarring scenes are some of the emotional highlights of the books.
One of Lafler's main themes is addiction and how creative people are often susceptible to it. Lafler creates "Bug Juice" as a stand-in for heroin or any other drug of choice that can take over lives. His treatment of drug use and drug users is cautionary but sympathetic. This is no BIRD (the Clint Eastwood film about Charlie Parker), where the central theme is a simple "drugs are bad", but rather an honest look at both the allure and pitfalls of substance abuse.
All of these choices are matched with Lafler's art style, which can be described as both tight and loose. His understanding and portrayal of anatomy and motion are impeccable, but there's a loose and rubbery quality to his figures that makes the hallucinations fit right into the narrative flow. His character design is another highlight, as he manages to invest each character with their own unique look apart from being an insect. In a book where the plot is very light, Lafler succeeds in making the reader invest in each character, whatever their foibles may be.
Jimmy has an ecstatic vision (based on a drug experience that Lafler experienced) that separates him from his need for religion, because he understands that "with music, I can unhinge time, subvert ego" of both himself and his audience. He decides he needs to start a band, because "musicians are like priests...we provide ritual" and "[create] the world from scratch every night." Hence the power of improvisation.
Jimmy and Slim eventually wind up joining Buggy Eckstone's bop group, one of the most famous combos in the city. They are quickly thrown out for dabbling in bug juice, but Jimmy bounces back to form his own combo with drummer Ralph Rojas and his protege "Bones", a standup bassist. Getting high inbetween sets, Jimmy is confronted by a future version of himself who reveals that his gift is "music that speaks the language of joy without words" but also notes that he was well on his way to becoming an addict.
When Lafler concentrates on the music and the characters, the book shines. When he starts to become bogged down in a melodramatic plot (there's an extended bit where Jimmy gets shot by a drug dealer, with various one-dimensional cops and low-lifes coming into the picture), the picture gets fuzzier. Fortunately, Lafler quickly turns away from such problems by simply fast-forwarding a bit to a future tour and an intriguing set of encounters between Jimmy's band and a blues group led by a thinly-disguised Muddy Waters character named McKinley. The camaraderie of a band and life on the road is the focus of the latter half of Bughouse, particularly the relationship between Jimmy and Slim and their "ongoing musical conversation."
Lafler's wild visual imagination is key to making the musical sequences work. The looseness of the characters allows him to get across the frenetic soloing. For songs like "Big Cats, Dancing Cats", Lafler draws in some loony-looking felines coming out of instruments. At one point, instead of the standard musical notes emanating from Jimmy's horn, we instead see "$!?" and a cross, reflecting Jimmy's thoughts. Lafler's sense of pacing is what makes the scenes work so well. The reader is never bored or confused by the performances, but rather intrigued by what's going on in the minds of the musicians. When they deliberately and playfully try to trip each other up musically on stage, it's a reflection of that "ongoing musical conversation" that binds them together.
The Bughouse saga reflects an artist at the height of his own powers who has gone through the same struggles that his characters have encountered. The reader is able to empathize with the bandmates because they while they all get the warts 'n all treatment, they are handled with so much affection. At 300+ pages and counting, it's obvious that Lafler still has quite a bit more to say about his Bugtown combo, and it will be interesting to see where he goes next. Every character has had their moment in the sun, and Lafler has come close to exhausting his main themes: addiction, friendship, performance & creation and how they all interrelate. The one thread that hasn't yet been finished is how and when Jimmy Watts finally grows up, and what role his becoming a father has in this process. Hopefully Lafler can take his group in some unexpected directions.