Books | May 2015
“Oliver has been away from his piano too long and knew it was time to come home again, even if it was only to close the door for good. He needed that door to be closed from the inside, on his own terms.”
We meet 85-year-old Oliver Pleasant, the central character in Memphis writer and editor Richard Alley’s new novel, in 2006 as he is preparing his own retirement send-off, the titular “Five Night Stand.” After living for decades in New York City, the jazz pianist, originally from Winona, Mississippi by way of New Orleans, is packing up his Manhattan life and relocating to Memphis. The fictional Pleasant doesn’t have much to show for a long, successful career in terms of wealth; in Memphis, he has family who will care for him in the twilight of his life.
“Five Night Stand” is a novel about the power music can have in a person’s life. Its magic is powerful enough — for better or worse — to be a stand in for life’s other staples like love and family. Oliver, for all of his devoted fans and loyal friends, has a hole in his life where his wife and children should be. His beloved wife, Francesca, has been gone twenty years, and his children are estranged, due largely to his absenteeism as a father. Living part-time in Paris, and traveling and performing often while stateside, their feelings of abandonment were made much worse by the discovery that Oliver had a serious mistress in Paris. His five night stand is dedicated to his children — a table is reserved for them in the basement of the Capasso Hotel for each night he is playing. He doesn’t really have reason to think they will come, but he continues to hope.
Frank Severs is a reporter in Memphis, recently laid off from The Commercial Appeal, a victim of the constant reorganization and downsizing of the American newsroom. His marriage has been faltering for some time, due largely to his and his wife’s struggle to have a child, issue exacerbated by Frank’s lack of employment, and the effect that has on their finances and his general sense of self-worth. While having lunch one day, he gets wind of the fact that a musician he admires — Oliver Pleasant — will be hanging things up professionally and moving to Memphis. He senses Pleasant’s story could make a terrific freelance piece and spends money he hasn’t yet made traveling to New York to catch his last shows.
In some ways, Agnes Cassady is 22 going on 92. A pretty and talented young woman, she suffers from a neurological condition which causes excruciating pain and a tremor in her hand that has gotten so bad that she can barely play piano, her first and only true love. With no cure in sight and convinced she won’t live past her mid-twenties, Agnes has carved out her own sort of place in the world, living in New Orleans, down the river from her native Tipton County, Tennessee. Drawn there by the music, she lives a bohemian existence whose bedrock principle is never wasting a moment on the downswings of life if she can possibly help it. She doesn’t feel she has enough time left for them. Agnes has come to New York for the first time and “she brings along only scenes from movies with their syncopated and scattered dialogue as reference, and a fervent love and respect for the music.” The real reason for her visit is to see yet one more neurologist in pursuit of a new glimmer of hope; her discovery that her visit coincides with Oliver Pleasant’s final five shows is a boon beyond measure for her soul.
These central characters find one another, attracted by common geographical roots, shared passions, bare need and a little fate. Together they help each other reopen old wounds that need airing out, as well as heal others that have been festering for too long.
Alley must surely have at least one thing in common with his characters, for only a fellow music lover could write a novel that is such a testament to music’s power to “bridge that gap between life and loss. It’s on that bridge, over a rushing current of uncertainty and inevitable anguish, that the best tunes are written, the ones that touch the people in that same hidden place that holds all their love, fear, and hate.”
Swan Song in Five Acts
At the end of his career, a legendary jazz pianist stages a five night run in hopes of being reunited with his children in
Five Night Stand
Story by Kathryn Justice Leache