Theo Czuk is, arguably, a singer/songwriter and musician first. He has seven music releases and counting, including a complimentary musical take on this novel; some are out of print, but sheer numbers alone make it apparent music is his primary vehicle for self-expression. He has two poetry collections in his résumé, Channeling Venice: Apparitions of Light and Pariscapes: Conversations with Paris, and a debut novel entitled Heart-Scarred. His latest novel The Black Bottom: The Measure of Man is full of music – the main character Kaleb Kierka is a jazz pianist and many of the novel’s secondary characters revel in the music world as well. His obvious love for music comes through during the course of the book and makes it stand out even more than it already does.
I think Czuk writes about the price of addiction with the keen insights of someone who has experienced those close to him felled by its indiscriminate hand. The uninformed may believe the scourge of drug abuse to be a modern plague, but profiteers reap rewards from human misery since time immemorial. It is no different in the Detroit of 1927.. Czuk populates his landscape with heroin junkies, alcoholics, prostitutes, and scores of walking wounded willing to inflict their own particular brand of unhappiness on others.
He depicts the disorientation of amnesia in a believable way. Kierja is on the receiving end of a near fatal beating from unidentified assailants and his efforts to restore his memories consume many of the book’s early pages. Czuk portrays his faltering efforts and uncertainty in a way sure to garner sympathy from readers. It is in these early pages when Czuk does his best work establishing Kierka’s character for readers.
He gradually recovers his sense of identity, however, and the novel’s development proceeds apace. The Black Bottom is a fast moving narrative that only accelerates as it nears its inevitable conclusion. Despite the relatively brevity of the novel, Kierka’s recovery of memory and sense of self is convincing rather than forced and his decisiveness as his personality reemerges is one of the more satisfying elements of the novel’s narrative.
The secondary characters are important, as well, for imbuing Kierka with even more life. Everything revolves around him and, despite the third person narration dominating the novel, nothing happens in this book without Kierka being the central spark. The omniscient third person narration avoids the distance common to this narrative style as it exudes personality and a distinctive voice that helps elevate the text. There is a cinematic flavor to the way The Black Bottom unfolds, particularly near the end, but there is an abiding literary quality that Czuk never deserts.
The Black Bottom: The Measure of Man has much to offer a wide variety of readers. Czuk has a commanding presence as an author, there is no tentativeness present in the text, and the wealth of detail incorporated into the novel makes it a richer reading experience. Theo Czuk has rendered the urban world of Detroit in the 1920’s in a way few other writers have dared and it is no chore to follow him step by step.