Like the Utah Jazz, jazzman Edward Lueders (pronounced LEE-ders) has put two good years back to back. Last year his Writing Natural History conference was not only a blockbuster, but Lueders himself was named University Professor of the Year at the University of Utah.
This year he is editing the conference dialogues for publication and hoping to bring out some translations of Japanese poetry. But the big news is the novel he's been working on for a decade now. "The Wake of the General Bliss" has finally hit the bookstores. And like the author, the book is tough to pin down. The blurbs on the back cover alone run the gamut from Artie Shaw to Edward Abbey. And as for the prose, it's erudite, vernacular, musical and full of metaphor.But then Lueders tends to be eclectic in everything he does. He's a sophisticated populist, a popular sophisticate; he's a highly literate jazz musician, a backwoods naturalist and a tweedy professor, not to mention a connoisseur of Eastern verse and Western cuisine.
"I like myself to be crowded," he smiles. "I like the different hats. I like changing venue, I don't like to go to the same court for every case. When I go up in the canyon and play piano I'm a pianist. If someone calls me Professor Lueders, I usually forget to answer. I'm proud to have a Ph.D, I just never see myself as a Dr. Lueders."
Lueders got his doctorate at the University of New Mexico in 1952. He came to the University of Utah in 1966 and has served as editor of Western Humanities Review, department chairman and held many other posts in his 23 years there. He has edited, compiled or written several books, including "The Clam Lake Papers," a tidy set of meditations on nature and metaphor that still sells at a steady pace.
Over the years many people have been asked to comment on both the man and his manuscripts. Dr. L. Jackson Newell, dean of liberal education at the U., has called him "rich in insight, human in instinct, generous but never overbearing with what he knows."
A critic for the U.S. Information Agency claimed in 1971 that Lueders' writing "exudes an energy of discovery" - a notion the critic may well re-kindle when he reviews the new book, "The Wake of the General Bliss."
Lueders' novel, from the University of Utah Press, is a quiet book set in a turbulent situation. A ship, the General Bliss, is returning home after World War II - taking several thousand G.I.s back to civilian life. Suddenly the cry of "Man overboard!" goes up. We follow the search for the man, but the focus soon begins to change. This harrowing brush with mortality has caused three young musicians on board to begin reflecting on their own lives and loves. Their conversation becomes a jazz conceit, they become a jazz trio playing off of each other's variations of themes and passing the solo around. The novel itself, in fact, is structured like a musical composition.
Readers who enjoy a strong, page-turning narrative may get the feeling they're simply spinning in place here; but then that's part of the plan. This is a writer's book, a book where the device of fiction may actually be the protagonist. Instead of thrusting ahead, the story evolves by telescoping into the past. Soon we find ourselves reading stories about people telling stories about people - Canterbury style.
William Gass has said the major American literary sin may be "genre blindness." If so, perhaps Lueders has really given us a "disguised poem;" a lyric work full of taut language and personal vision.
"There was a working sub-title for the book at one point: `Opus for Jazz Trio,' " says Lueders. "The problem for me was `orchestrating' the book. There was a sense of voices in the orchestra for me, particularly with the jazz trio in the center. I had to set up a situation where they could `improvise.' "
"As a writer I may be a bit of an English teacher after all. When I write I like to have problems to solve. I get lured into playing games of one sort or another; but then that's what language is."
Does Lueders have an ideal reader in mind for such a book?
"No, I don't think so," he says, "unless it's myself. Just as I like to wear many hats, I like to be available to readers on many levels. Yes, `The General Bliss' is a literary book. It is, I suppose, a poet's book. Still, I hope it is a novel that people can read for their own purposes rather than mine. I try to hand the book over to the characters in book and let the reader create his or her union with them instead of with the author."
For now, readers who would like to get the know author will have several chances. Lueders will be signing copies of his book 5-7 p.m. Feb. 17 at the Kings English bookstore (1511 S. 15th East). There is also talk of having Lueders do a reading from the novel in the near future.
But for those who'd like a little less formal setting, there are always those nights when Lueders moonlights as a jazz pianist around the area.
"I've played at the Rustler Lodge once or twice a week for four or five years now," he says. "I go up there and put on my musician's hat on Saturday nights."
If you can't catch the man's jazz act in person, don't worry.
With "The Wake of the General Bliss," now you can now read the book.