There’s something delightfully eccentric in publishing a book that no one can buy about a consummate jazz pianist who moonlights as a latter-day Robin Hood, stealing diamonds and BMWs in order to give away the entire take. But that’s exactly what the new Concord Free Press has done. By accepting a free copy of the novel, readers commit themselves to making a donation of their choice to a charity or a person in need and then passing the book on to someone else, so they too can give. Donations range from socks for a homeless shelter to large sums of cash. Have a look at the publisher’s website for the astonishing amount that’s already been distributed – and all 1500 copies of the novel are in worldwide circulation. You’d be hard-pressed to get your hands on one.
Stona Fitch’s novel Give & Take is only the first in a projected two-book-a-year endeavour. And lest you think it’s a failed writer’s attempt at self-publishing, Fitch is published conventionally – his second novel Senseless is even praised by no lesser a writer than Nobel Prize winner J. M. Coetzee. All subsequent publications by the Concord Free Press will be by other writers. If this inaugural book is anything to go by, they will be handsome and professional productions.
Furthermore, Give & Take is a damned good read, a riff on the classic road novel. Pianist Ross Clifton seems happy enough with his outsider life (and yes, there’s a pun involved), playing brilliantly, seducing women who come to his gigs to rid them of their burdensome ‘best friends’ (hand jobs, only – he’s got principles!), following a strict regime of vegetarian whole foods and Tibetan exercise. Enter one beer- and burrito-fueled 16-year-old nephew, Cray (think supercomputers), who is busy distributing his dad’s forged twenty-dollar notes, a gorgeous singer named Marianne, who has her own scam going to support a hospitalised mother, and a vengeful, wealthy, Mafia-style fruit importer nicknamed Banana Man who’s after one of Ross’s fingers. I’m dying to ask Stona Fitch which came first: the Colombian bananas or the bright yellow condom Banana Man sports.
It’s that sort of novel – funny, fast-paced, deliciously naughty, yet with a decidedly serious take on our consumer culture. Fitch’s prose is smart and sleek, and he’s especially good when it comes to music:
Delmar [one of Ross’s mentors] was a sonic housewrecker: he brought down the walls of song with sledgehammer chords to let sunlight in. He seemed furious at the keyboard, swinging at some leftover scrap of melody hanging stubbornly at the end of a run. Delmar was a painter, sketching only the outline of what he wanted the audience to see, sometimes just a couple of points, leaving us to draw the lines.
I failed to notice the truth – Delmar Robbins was one of the laziest piano players in the world. He was simply trying to play as few notes as possible because it elevated the amount he was being paid per note, notes being the commodity that he brought to the club.
Fitch has a gift for metaphor:
Revisiting the same family episodes over and over leaves them as smooth as old coins, shining brightly but with the dates worn away.
There’s one sex scene which possibly stumbles over the boundary between satire and triteness, but this is a small misstep in an otherwise admirable undertaking. You may, however, not want to hand Give & Take to your teenager if you have a rigid moral outlook – not because of the sex, which is never overly graphic or inappropriate, but because this is a novel in which crime does, in fact, pay.
Now consider my problem: how do I pass on a book which I’d love to keep for my permanent collection, when I can’t buy myself another? (There’s no point emailing me, since my copy is already promised to someone in Cape Town.) What an unbeatable business model! Make your product so exclusive – literally priceless – that readers will beg, borrow, or steal to hang on to one.