Early in “Don’t Start Me Talkin’,” the contemplative and wry new novel by Tom Williams, a former professor at Arkansas State University and editor of the Arkansas Review, the author slyly shows his hand: In the scene, Silent Sam, a Michigan native who plays the harmonica with the legendary Brother Ben, the “Last of the True Delta Bluesmen,” is talking to Heywood Sharp. Nowadays, Heywood’s too busy winning teacher of the year awards in Pine Bluff to miss the long ago days when he performed with Brother Ben.
Silent Sam, whose real name is Peter Owens and who has reluctantly adopted a ramshackle backstory and a Mississippi slur to mask his Great Lakes vowels — that is, when he is allowed to speak — occasionally dials up Heywood from the road. It’s one of the few opportunities to fully escape his stage persona to talk about the incredible puzzle that is Brother Ben. It’s while talking to Heywood, shortly into their cross country tour that will take them from Los Angeles through the Upper Midwest down to an award ceremony in Memphis and up to the northeast, that Sam, the narrator of this genuine novel, informs us, “I laugh, knowing the rule concerning all stories about Brother Ben: They’re true, even if they never happened.”
The engine of the plot is the tour, a series of gigs sprinkled across college towns. The crowds are slight and lack soulful blues fans, as they’re almost entirely comprised of academic white guys. Silent Sam is unhappy that African Americans aren’t attending their performances. He even remarks that pay phones are as rare as black blues fans, and he wonders if hip-hop music has essentially replaced the blues. Is hip-hop piggybacking off of the painful notes that were laid down on vinyl decades ago? When a rap group samples a hook from one of their songs, Silent Sam and Brother Ben briefly experience a miniscule semblance of recognition, but it’s ultimately vapid. The novel tussles with crucial themes such as personal identity, race, and the role of the blues in American culture. Williams is smart not to directly pontificate on these muddled issues. Instead, we naturally explore these ideas through Silent Sam. “Don’t Start Me Talkin’ ” explores the importance of storytelling. Throughout the novel, the accuracy of its characters’ tales is incidental; instead, you’ll find the truth in the intention of their stories. Nearly everything Brother Ben says is invented, and oftentimes effective, such as when he and Silent Sam concoct a lie to get out of a traffic violation.
What are we to make of Brother Ben’s gimmicks, the 1970s stage outfits, bogus life stories, the ’76 Cadillac they drive across the country? Why must Silent Sam amble around sheepishly in Ben’s shadow, muttering one-word sentences in a plantation vernacular that brings to mind Samuel L. Jackson’s character in “Django Unchained”? While pondering the abhorrent fakery of a blues-themed venue, Silent Sam reflects, “… I recall from my marketing classes at State that there’s no need for the genuine if your clientele believes what they’re getting is real.” In a logged-in world in which people can pretend to be anybody they want, and even flat-out steal an identity, what’s so wrong with pretending to be a vintage Mississippi-bred blues player, even if you’re really from suburban Detroit?
In addition to Silent Sam’s refreshing voice and the book’s cast of unpredictable characters, we’re also provided a history of the blues’ primary players, how they lived and where they died — who knew that Wisconsin was so deadly for blues musicians?
“Don’t Start Me Talkin’ ” is a thoughtful and entertaining novel. Williams’ humor is abundant and largely of the understated variety. Like Charles Portis, Williams excavates the minutia of daily life and finds the forgotten details for his comedy. He refrains from pouncing on cliched comedic targets, such as the proliferation of white people at a blues show behaving like, well, white people. I think Williams trusts that the reader would rather sidestep easy jokes and instead allow the novel to present itself as one long set-up. The punch line is ultimately what we walk away with: In the end, though Silent Sam is telling the story, it may be that it’s Brother Ben who has been controlling the narrative all along.