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I’m Frankie Sterne

by Dave Margoshes

At various times a jazz musician, freedom fighter, beatnik, and logger, Frankie Sterne drifts through mid-20th-century North America without making much of an impression, either on the people he encounters or on the reader.

The book begins promisingly, as young Frankie manoeuvres his way through 1950s Harlem, belonging to every marginalized group going – through birth and happenstance, he’s black, Puerto Rican, and Jewish. His mother has died in childbirth and his father, distant and secretive, sporadically seeks to connect with his son, only to withdraw again. So Frankie, a rootless Manhattanite, is blown about by winds of change.

Margoshes sets his ephemeral protagonist against historical figures and events to lend a sense of time and place. So Frankie has brushes with Miles Davis and Ritchie Valens, and with the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and JFK. But Frankie’s various incarnations, adventures, and introspective musings do little to instill him with a greater sense of self, and a final revelation of childhood exploitation fails to give meaning to his earlier choices and actions.

Margoshes has a journalist’s habit of punching up the first sentence of a chapter, like a news lead, and filling in the details later. This does pick up the pace at regular intervals, but also makes transitions between chapters abrupt. One chapter begins with an exultant Frankie declaring his love. Two chapters later he starts with an announcement that his marriage is over. But Margoshes also has a journalist’s eye for detail, and is a gifted observer of relationships, particularly of the tension between men and women. A description of two strangers passing one another on a snowy city street crackles with sexual energy.

Several chapters of I’m Frankie Sterne have appeared as short stories in various journals. And the themes implicit in them have legs enough to carry a full-length novel; Margoshes just doesn’t develop them quite enough to pull it off.