Theo Czuk’s novel The Black Bottom: The Measure of Man
There’s a little bit of something for every reader in Theo Czuk’s novel The Black Bottom: The Measure of Man. Music lovers will enjoy his long meditations on jazz and the effect it exerts over eager listeners. Devotees of thrillers and crime fiction will appreciate the hard-hitting nature of its action scenes, the suspense rife throughout the work, and the uncompromising depiction of Detroit’s meanest streets. Fans of modernist fiction will applaud his seamless mixing of realistic textures with the hallucinatory nature of dreams. Admirers of historical fiction will revel in Czuk’s command of detail and the depth of research he put into recreating the Detroit of the late 1920’s/
The prose style he adopts for the book adopts lingo from the era, i.e. sap for something to bludgeon someone with, which may pose problems for those not immediately familiar with such slang, but it isn’t a critical drawback. Much of the prose has a conversational and down to earth slant, but Czuk occasionally tosses in words that stick out as anomalies amidst the general streetwise tone of his writing. These moments jarred me a little as a reader but, once again, it is far from a major problem.
A big reason for that is the confidence Czuk exhibits from the outset. He has a story he wants to tell and goes about laying it out for the reader in assured fashion. Undoubtedly that confidence is born, at least in part, from Czuk’s experience as a writer. The Black Bottom is his second novel, but he likewise has two volumes of poetry to his credit and an assortment of albums brimming with lyrical, as well as musical, invention. He is a polished writer with a unfailing hand and feel for his material.
His protagonist Kaleb Kierka emerges from the novel’s pages as its most fully realized character, but he fleshes out the book’s secondary characters in a thoughtful way. His antagonists are amoral ciphers with no motivation behind their actions other than pure avarice, but the book doesn’t require three dimensional villains to be effective. They are not the focus. The focus is Kierka and his friends and connections; Czuk’s focus is on these characters throughout the entirety of The Black Bottom and readers will feel their losses acutely.
It isn’t a lengthy book, running only a little over three hundred pages, and moves at a brisk pace. The pace picks up the closer readers are to the ending and there is a certain deflation accompanying its conclusion, but the book is never dispiriting. This is in no small way thanks to the vigor running through Czuk’s prose and the clear commitment he brings to the table on each page of the book. The Black Bottom: The Measure of Man is an invigorating reading experience and invites re-reading, but you get the feeling Czuk has only scratched the surface of his considerable talents. Let’s hope he turns his hand to another novel in the near future and continues to build his reputation as a first class literary talent.