Dangerous Blues, kind of a ghost story by Stephen Policoff, reviewed by Laurie Loewenstein

In the months after my mother died, my father confided to me that he regularly talked to her. To her, not with her. Knocking around an empty house, he took comfort in telling her the events of his day—which cashier at Kroger had a new hair style, how many laps he’d done on the Y’s walking track, how many bags of mulch he’d used putting the rose bushes down for the winter.

We all cope with grief in different ways. For some it is a numbing void that is shapeless, all consuming, and paralyzing. For others, like my father, it manifests as a reach outward toward the dead. An impulse to sustain the connection. Alternatively, as in the case of Paul Brickner, the protagonist of Stephen Policoff’s Dangerous Blues, it is Paul’s dead wife, Nadia, who is reaching out to him. Maybe. Kind of.

Seven months after her death, Paul moves, with hesitation, from upstate New York and into a Greenwich Village sublet with his (almost) 12-year-old daughter, Spring. On the day of their arrival, while Spring exuberantly explores the two-bedroom apartment crammed with the owner’s collection of Ganesha figurines, the elephant-headed Hindu god, Paul dithers: “I was not at all sure this sublet was a good idea. I was not at all sure what a good idea might look like.” The first night in the sublet a ghostly Nadia leaps around the bedroom in his dreams before crouching on his chest. But maybe he is awake? He’s not certain.

Still, he hangs in there for the sake of the irrepressible Spring, who quickly makes a school friend, Irina, and settles into the hilariously named MIST (Middle School for Individual and Social Transformation). Take note: this novel is seeded with humor as well as pathos.

Paul, temporarily unemployed and clearly depressed, is adrift and lacks agency beyond making sure Spring is fed, clothed, gets her homework done, and is able to express her own grief. Many of the eccentric, quirky characters in Dangerous Blues push Paul to take action. Make a plan, stop looking so gloomy, get a girlfriend, he’s told. Bringing to life this type of passive, hangdog protagonist is a huge challenge for a writer. Many beginning writers attempt this feat and few succeed. But Policoff is far from a beginner and Paul benefits from the writer’s nuanced treatment. Yes, Paul is an Eeyore but as he observes the life surging around he notes the silliness of human pursuits even as he ponders nihilistic questions. 

While Paul is passively observing, Spring is exuberantly participating. Policoff wonderfully captures the leggy energy of pre-adolescents, who dart from bouncing with joy to quiet moodiness and back within seconds. Parents will immediately connect with Paul’s observation as he watches his daughter and her friend kicking a discarded set of children’s building blocks: “Such a strange age. They are so clearly still little girls, except that now and again the outline of the women they will be edges out, like the sun from behind a cloud.”

We can engage easily with the yin and yang of Paul and Spring—two passengers in a wobbly wooden boat where once there were three. And the small waves of grandparents, old friends, and new acquaintances lapping around them both flesh out Paul and Spring and also add their own authenticities and quirks into the mix.

Policoff makes Greenwich Village, with its damp winds and false-fronted tenements that hide interiors unchanged since the 19th century, work powerfully as the setting for this tale of ghosts and grief and hauntings. The streets here, in one of the oldest of New York’s neighborhoods, are saturated in the sweat, grime, urine, and blood of residents past and present and a perfectly natural place for Paul to encounter Nadia’s ghost.

The voice of Dangerous Blues is one of its most successful elements. Policoff’s word choices produce both a lyrical and wry tone that reward us on every page. We read about “ghostly tunes emanating from ancient speakers,” and a blues singer who gives Paul “the tentative wave of someone who has never waved to anyone in her life.”

Policoff is the author of two other novels: The Beautiful Somewhere Else, which won the James Jones First Novel Prize, and Come Away, a dark domestic comedy with a buzz of the supernatural and winner of the Dzanc Award. Like Dangerous Blues, Policoff’s earlier novels combine domestic comedy with the buzz of the supernatural.

Fully realized characters, lyrical prose, gauzy apparitions—what more could anyone ask of this captivating novel that is “kind of a ghost story”? Nothing. I was charmed through and through.

Dangerous Blues, by Stephen Policoff. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Flexible Press, November 2022. 257 pages. $18.00, paper.

Laurie Loewenstein is the author of three novels. She is retired from the fiction faculty of  the Maslow Family Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Wilkes University and is president of the James Jones Literary Society.

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