Ami Silber imagines a virtuosic con artist in 1940s Los Angeles
Like the protagonist of her first novel, Early Bright, Ami Silber is a Los Angeleno, and her investment in that city and its history is palpable on every page of her insightful, absorbing—and often sexy—book. The 1940s L.A. of Early Bright comes to life in these pages: sultry and seedy, glaring and haunting, a land of all-American possibility and all-American despair. The book’s narrator, Louis Greenberg, is a Bronx-born jazz pianist who’s finagled his way out of fighting in World War II and come instead to Los Angeles, where he plays bebop by night and runs con schemes by day. He also falls deeply in love with a black woman, Beatrice, with whom, in the segregated 1940s, he can never have a future.
Silber has a master’s degree in literature from U.C. San Diego, and earned her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2000.
Your protagonist, Louis Greenberg, is phenomenally complex. Where did your idea for this character come from?
Louis’ identity evolved, rather than emerged fully formed from my head. He underwent many transformations as Early Bright took shape, until he ultimately became a fully realized person. His voice drives the novel—the mixture of con slang, jazz patois, Jewish New York and his own particular way of seeing the world. We’re not much alike, but I knew the only way to really tell his story was through first-person narration, so I essentially had to inhabit his consciousness whenever I sat down to type. Writing is a lot like Jungian dream analysis—every character is, in some way, a permutation of the author’s own identity, so that somewhere inside me is a tough-talking, sentimental, and manipulative con artist.
How were you able to make yourself think in his voice?
Obviously, music was key. I always wrote to jazz from that time period: Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson. The very first draft of the novel had Louis speaking almost entirely in slang, but that got impenetrable—just ask my early readers. And Louis, while from the Bronx, isn’t a Bowery Boy. He comes from a comfortable, lower-middle-class world. When he does use slang, it’s very conscious. He’s creating a role for himself and trying to inhabit it, just as I inhabited him.
Where did this story come from?
Initially, the novel was going to be told in two parts: the present day, featuring a young woman learning of a disgraced, never-talked-about relative; and the past, detailing the story of that relative from his point of view. The more I researched and thought about the book, the less interested I became in the present-day story. The stakes seemed so much higher with the disgraced relative. So I refocused the novel on Louis.
My dad has long been fascinated with the 1930s and 1940s, so I grew up surrounded by fountain pens, vintage rotary phones, and collectibles from the 1939 New York World’s Fair. We listened to old radio broadcasts and went to revival houses showing Marx brothers movies. I was cognizant of that era from an early age. Also, I happen to be fascinated by con men. It really intrigued me how, especially back in the height of the old-time grifters, they played upon basic human desires, especially greed. Con men exploit our own need to have it better than someone else. I also grew up in Los Angeles, a place that figured largely in the world of noir, and that underwent huge expansion in the postwar period. There was such contradiction: sunshine, prosperity, and optimism combined with anxiety, shadows, and falsehood. All of this blended to make a world that I found incredibly rich and deeply involving.
I knew very little about jazz, less about World War II, and hardly anything about con artists from that time period. I did a ton of research for Early Bright—I think it’s the grad school geek in me that loves scouring library shelves and source materials.
Were Jews involved in the worlds you depict: the L.A. jazz scene, the con game?
Jews have long been involved in the music scene, especially during the 1920s and the era of Tin Pan Alley. It’s not a coincidence that The Jazz Singer was about a Jewish man trying to enter the world of popular jazz music. That was the era in which Louis grew up, the era which influenced him, the era of the Berlins, the Gershwins. But there’s long been an uneasy affinity between African Americans and Jewish Americans, so Louis’ heroes and contemporaries would also have been, to use the parlance of the day, Negro.
As for Jewish con artists, I didn’t find a lot of documentation about that. Most of the great con artists came from the Midwest, which didn’t have as large a Jewish community as other parts of the country. However, jazz and cons are part of liminal society, the edges of respectability, and I think that Jews often are perceived as and feel themselves to be outsiders. It isn’t such a stretch for Louis to ally and identify with these forms of our culture.
And into that uneasy affinity step Louis and Beatrice. Bea is the person with whom Louis can be most honest; the only thing she doesn’t know is that he cons for a living. He thinks it’s money that will ultimately trump race in their relationship, that money will be the great leveler.
For Louis, Beatrice is as close to the “right woman” as someone like him can get. She has a self-sufficiency and realism that he finds missing in most other women. Louis is honest with her—to a point. He can reveal his truest self to her, but not entirely, since she doesn’t know about his work as a con artist. In almost everything else in his life, Louis shields himself with cynicism, yet also clings to the notion that, if he became famous through his music, all his dissonant threads will come together, all problems will be solved. He and Beatrice can have a public life together, his father will forgive him. What the reader sees, but Louis cannot, is that he’s really conning himself. And that’s where the danger truly begins, with self-deception.
Self-deception, then, is both Louis’ means of survival and his undoing?
As his mentor, Memphis Arnie, states, one of Louis’ gifts is his complete and utter selfishness, his drive for self-preservation. The only way he can reconcile himself to all the terrible things he’s done is to deliberately block them from his mind or invent a means of justification. He also believes that he is better, different from everyone else, and thus provides a rationale for his conning. But again, the irony is that, to a con artist, the perfect mark is the one who wants it better than everybody else. The ideal con victim, too, is a person who believes they are better or more deserving than other people, and so Louis, by imbuing himself with a sense of primacy, becomes the ideal mark. Which is a precarious position for anyone, but especially him as he attempts to work many angles at once.
There’s a particularly affecting scene in which Louis hears from a friend about a war souvenir the guy is desperately jealous of: a “Jap ear” necklace. In the exposition that follows, Louis is revealed to the reader in a new way. “I dragged on my cigarette to keep my gorge down and my cool up…. [I]t got me then that there were depths folks would sink to even I couldn’t guess. The newsreels, for instance, of GIs liberating the camps. Hadn’t counted on that, not at all.”
Certain truths about violence and bloodthirstiness in other people still shock Louis. The kind of violence he inflicts on others is emotional and psychological. So his revulsion is about not only the making of a human-ear necklace, but the coveting of it. Similarly, he’s profoundly shaken when he first learns about the concentration camps, knowing that he didn’t fight. He’s confronted with evidence of the deep and systematic hatred and extermination of Jews, and that he did nothing to stop it. Though it isn’t constantly present in his mind, it’s always there, buried deep within him, the legacy of his cowardice.
What role did Judaism play in your imagining of Louis’ life?
Louis strongly identifies culturally as Jewish, even as he acknowledges that he comes from a non-observant background. Many of his memories of his life in New York are grounded in things like the social life surrounding the synagogue, and most, if not all, of his friends and his parents’ friends are Jewish. The community and sense of belonging are strong. Everyone looks like him. They all share a common cultural currency. So, when Louis must leave New York, his sense of displacement is amplified—which is ironic, because by removing himself from the New York Jewish community, his identity as a Jew becomes that much more significant. I think that happens a lot with Jews, that their knowledge and feeling of being different from the general world grows stronger if they leave Jewish enclaves. I definitely felt that in Iowa!
Louis’ strongest sense of displacement and loss comes when he goes to the Fairfax district here in L.A., where there is a very active community of Orthodox Jews. There, he feels the ties to his past, his family, everything he has lost or given up. His sense of being an outsider is underscored. Because he doesn’t wear payes or tzitzit, he isn’t immediately recognizable as a Jew, so that his sense of difference is carried on the inside where it is, in many ways, even more powerful.