As linguistic tricks falter, so does Shackling Water

By Devin Cain

Adam Mansbach’s Shackling Water has received gushing praise from some of the country’s most respected critics, who are impressed with his attempts to infuse the novel with the rhythms of hip-hop and jazz. Yet, disappointingly enough, this musically tinged style disappears about a fifth of the way into the book, and is replaced by a more conventional idiom.

The plot of Shackling Water is pretty standard coming-of-age fare. Latif, a saxophone prodigy from Boston, runs off to Harlem to listen to jazz-god Albert Van Horn. He lurks in the shadows of a midtown club, learning from the music and waiting until he is good enough to play with the masters. Desperate for a job and an entrance into the culture, he pushes drugs, but the lifestyle begins to wear on him. When his relationships with the saxophone and Van Horn finally begin in earnest, they too are fairly typical. Latif turns into a starving, tortured artist who cannot live up to the otherworldly presence of his idol. Van Horn is the mysterious character who supports Latif, while demanding he find the music on his own.

Despite some shortcomings, however, the story is pretty solid. Though there is nothing spectacular or particularly penetrating about most of the events, some scenes are very honestly rendered–in particular, Latif’s return to his mother’s home after running away. Yet, such quality moments mostly seem like a good foundation for Mansbach’s grander intention, which is to shape language to reflect the jazz/street world of the book.

In the beginning of the novel, this ambition gives us sentences like: “The horn dipped and bobbed above the amniotic ocean on winged ankles, shrieked and spiral-dive plummeted into it, vanishing inside the grace of Icarus only to reanimate ichthyoid, a toothy green sea monster undulating over brimstone waves.” Now, whether you like the style or not, it is distinct and indicates Mansbach is on a serious linguistic mission.

Unfortunately, such shifts in beat and playful use of syntax dissipate as the book progresses. The style lingers in the descriptions of the music and of Van Horn and Latif’s playing, but when advancing the plot, Mansbach succumbs to typical clunkers like this: “Mona’s eyes were shimmering oceans and sharks swam in them, zagging left and right in search of prey.” Occasionally, he drops in a line or two of street talk, but mostly he abandons his early rhythm for familiar structures and metaphors.

The abandonment of this early style is the book’s greatest failure. Mansbach flirts with this powerful idiom, but never gets inside it, never laces it together with the other elements of the book. In Mansbach’s hands it is a style better left to poetry (think Langston Hughes) than the constraints of this 200-page plot. Shackling Water would have been interesting had Mansbach sustained his emerging language and its beat throughout the course of the story. Instead, when that rhythm dies, the book dies with it, becoming just another novel. Not so bad, but not so good either.