Author: Craig Nova

1992, Grove Press

Filed Under Literary


Dean Gollancz is a professional arsonist who helps clients defraud insurance agencies. He brings his teenage son Ray–an intelligent and well-behaved teen–on a few jobs to show him the ropes. Soon a professional relationship and camaraderie develop between the two, where before there had been little connection at all. This begins to fracture when they both have a sexual relationship with the same girl: Iris, one of Ray’s classmates. Iris leaves California to become a Vegas prostitute, and Ray leaves for college on the east coast. This leaves Dean alone. He drinks too much, and he becomes sloppy. His bravado deflated, Dean is exposed as the small-time crook his really is.

Ray is the strongest character in the book. He is unwaveringly true to his own set of morals, and much of the novel concerns him trying desperately to balance loyalties, both to others and to himself. The relationship that is ostensibly the crux of the novel (according to the jacket copy) is that between father and son. But most of Ray’s decisions, namely, to turn his back on his Ivy League education and commit arson for his father’s employer, a Mr. Wei, stem from his relationship to Ivy and his desire to seek her out. At times this relationship can feel forced or unbelievable, but observing Ray’s steadfast sensibility forced into difficult situations remains the most satisfying aspect of the novel.

The plot is okay, and I found myself wrapped up in it on more than one occasion. But, for the most part, action is lacking. The book is full of lengthy passages, often padded with too much description.

Iris and Ray ate their hamburger sandwiches off paper plates. The sandwiches were made on toasted buns with seeds on top, and there was lettuce and a slice of tomato and onion. The paper plates had a slight texture to them, and the french-fried potatoes were almost a yellow color, like butter or corn.

This passage keeps going, but I’ll stop there. It is but one of many instances of overwriting. Trombone would have made for a great crime caper type story with some literary themes explored as a bonus. But it tries so hard to sound “literary” or important, it begins to lose its substance and the threads of the story together fray.

This becomes a problem in many of the character interactions. Nova’s words and themes overwhelm his characters, and start to wash out the relationships between them. Take this exchange from a car ride scene for example (again, his is just a small segment of a longer, more tedious passage):

“There were a lot of things I wanted to do,” said Franconia. “I wanted to have a real silk dress. High-heel shoes. I wanted to drink champagne.”

“I’m sorry,” said Tyler.

“Have you ever had champagne?” asked Franconia.

“Yes,” said Ray. “You can feel it in your nose a little. A little tingle. And on your tongue, too.”

“I wanted to have a bathtub, too,” said Franconia. “A big long one. We have nothing but a shower at home, and once a woman gave me some bubble bath. I cried to beat the band.”

“You used the tubs in the motels,” said Tyler.

“They were real nice,” said Franconia.

“Stop that sniveling,” said Tyler, turning back to look at Belle.

Aside from the fact that nobody talks like that, this does nothing to progress the plot. In fact, besides Ray, these characters have little to do with the entire book. The whole scene exists merely to service Ray’s characterization. It could easily have been omitted.

I liked this book, and I recommend it to readers who like soft-boiled crime stories. There is plenty of enjoyable stuff going on, especially in Ray’s desperate attempts to understand and ultimately confront his father. It’s just a shame Trombone tries so hard to be a literary opus, because the writing is unremarkable, and holds back the otherwise interesting story. This book got a lot of good press when it came out 20 years ago, and it’s not all unwarranted, but just the same I’ll probably pass on reading any of Nova’s other novels.

Similar Reads: Mailman (Lennon), Maribou Stork Nightmare (Welsh)