It’s Always Four O’Clock by James Updyke. Random House (1956), 178 pp.
Stan Pawley, in his mid-twenties, has settled comfortably into his career as a jazz guitarist in Los Angeles. He gets enough work, makes enough money and meets enough women to keep him contented. His roommate, bassist and sometime singer Walt Flick, has more trouble keeping the opposite sex at just the right distance. At the moment classy amateur vocalist Berte Evers has her eye on him, though she continues to hang around with Frank Guardi, a friend who sings badly but has a lot of money. Everything changes when pianist Royal Mauch comes into their lives. He’s a flaky guy who is hard to read but whose take on jazz is innovative and complex. Though not quite aware of it, Royal wants to find an audience for his music.
The story starts with a leisurely pace, so it takes while for events to unfold and characters to come into focus. Stan narrates retrospectively. He begins at a concert and then flashes back to a mostly chronological account of the previous year. The author, actually famed crime writer W. R. Burnett, was more than twice as old as Stan. So he deserves special credit for the convincing, hipsterish narrative voice. The story contains knowing details of L. A.’s jazz scene, but it focuses on its characters’ responses to the issues it raises: popularity vs. art, involvement vs. passion, competence vs. genius. Readers interested in those topics, or in music generally, are likely enjoy the novel.