Set in Kansas City, Missouri, during the Jazz Age of the 1920s and ’30s, Such Sweet Thunder is a majestic evocation of childhood and parental love told through the eyes of a remarkable boy, Amerigo Jones. This vivid portrait of an era marred by racial segregation and relentless, daily injustices is nonetheless rendered with love and longing for a time and place that was enriched by a vibrant, burgeoning, and widely influential African American culture and a fierce feeling for family and community.
Written in 1963 and shelved, this hefty, astonishing novel by a black American expatriate who died in 1983 tells in electric modernist vernacular prose the story of a black child's life in Jim Crow America. In France during WWII, soldier Amerigo Jones thinks back on his youth in the 1920s and '30s in a black community resembling the author's native Kansas City. At first, the members of his extended family are presented as a chorus of voices fading in and out: his lovely, luxury-craving mother, Viola; his stern, dapper bellhop father, Rutherford; his grandmother and a bevy of aunts. After this short stream-of-consciousness section, the novel settles into a fluent, easy chronological narrative weighted toward the dreamy, determined Amerigo's early childhood, but stretching all the way to his graduation from high school. Through a steady accumulation of detail ("Five o'clock. Supper: hot dog sandwiches, salad, and beer for them and strawberry soda-pop for him"), sustained lyricism ("Fat round A's, B's, and C's spread out over the ruled spaces of his mind"), flights of fancy ("And he was the Swan Prince! 'Wauk! Wauk!' He cried plaintively, his heart beating violently") and, especially, reams of swinging dialogue (" 'A man reads this paper an' gits fightin' mad! Waitaminute!' "), Carter paints an uncommonly rich picture of black American family life in the early 20th century. Like the composition it is named for, a Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn tribute to Shakespeare, it is a marvelous blend of jazz rhythms and high literary tradition.