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Clifford's Blues Paperback – April 1, 1999

4.9 out of 5 stars 9 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Inspired by a little known fact about WWII, Williams (Captain Blackman) creates a chillingly lifelike account of the treatment of black people by the Nazis. In the parlance of the time, Williams's protagonist refers to himself as a gay Negro; he's a jazz pianist in 1930s Berlin who runs afoul of the ascendant Nazis and is imprisoned for 12 years in Dachau. "My name's Clifford Pepperidge and I am in trouble," the narrator announces on May 28, 1933, in the first page of his diary, which ends inconclusively on April 28, 1945, as the Americans liberate Dachau. Clifford's journal is framed by letters dated 1986 that trace how the diary was passed along and eventually published. Embroiled in a sexual scandal with a wealthy American embassy attache, the New Orleans-born Clifford is effectively stripped of his identity and accused of "immorality to the state." At Dachau, he encounters SS officer Dieter Lange, who once haunted the same jazz and gay clubs as Clifford, and now becomes his protector and lover, using him as a "calfactor" or houseboy, and gaining prominence among the other SS for throwing parties at which Clifford plays the piano. The diary is filled with harrowingly authentic details about the workings of the camp: the ranking among the prisoners by colored triangles, the bargaining for food and sex, the brutality of the guards and increasingly horrific conditions. While Clifford's own situation is relatively privileged , he often compares the treatment of the other prisoners he observes to slavery in America. Williams's ear for black dialect?especially musical references?is superb and his knowledge of jazz impressive. Where the early entries lag with the long overture toward war, the later ones increase in tension as Hitler's aggression unravels. Clifford emerges as a naif, often willfully ignorant but never cruel; his diary, though fictional, is an eloquent testimony to the largely unknown sufferings of blacks?not only African-Americans but "colored men" from all countries?who were incarcerated in WWII concentration camps.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Kirkus Reviews

A first novel by journalist Williams (If I Stop Ill Die: The Comedy and Tragedy of Richard Pryor, 1991), portraying the travails of a black musician imprisoned in Dachau. Prison camps have hardly been places, conventionally, to catch up with ones diary. Here, though, the solitude, boredom, and seemingly endless stretches of they time serve to make our central character quite introspective indeed, even though this person is the gregarious and feckless as Clifford Pepperidge. A gay pianist from New Orleans, Cliff made the scene in Harlem in the 1920s, playing alongside the likes of Ellington, Ma Rainey, and Miss Bessie Smith. When a Russian impresario decides to take a jazz band on tour through Europe, Cliff jumps on board and eventually winds up in Berlin, where he becomes one of the stars of the cabaret years of Weimar. Arrested during one of the Gestapos periodic roundups of gays, Cliff is taken (in spite of his US citizenship) into Protective Custody and sent to Dachau. Upon arrival, hes recognized by Dieter Lange, a gay SS officer with a secret passion for jazz who used to frequent Cliffs nightclubs. Dieter makes Cliff his calfactor (houseboy) and gets him special treatment in exchange for sex and music (all the other Nazis apparently love jazz as much as Dieter, and Cliff helps Dieter win favor with the brass by playing at parties for them). And since Dieters young wife Anna is (not surprisingly) far from satisfied by her husband, it soon becomes part of Cliffs duties to take care of her as well. How much degradation is enough for a man? Cliff has no illusions: Good men who are strong dont last here. But if you want to make it, you can put up with just about anythingand Cliffs diary shows how he does just that. A worthwhile variation on a grim and lamentably familiar story. The tone veers toward the disconcertingly light, but, even so, things remain a long way from Hogans Heroes. -- Copyright ©1999, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Coffee House Press; 1st edition (April 1, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1566890802
  • ISBN-13: 978-1566890809
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.8 x 8.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #446,307 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
I read this book a year ago and it haunts me still.
John A. Williams has crafted here a story so compelling, so engrossing in its depiction of life lived on a razor's edge, that you loathe putting it down; you may feel chills when you've finished it. It's that disturbing, and that good. CLIFFORD'S BLUES affirms that Williams retains his gifts (fresh as ever in his mid-70s!) and mastery of his craft.
Clifford Pepperidge is triple-crossed: condemned as "decadent" - for being American Negro, jazz musician, and active homosexual (especially impolitic when he's caught in bed with a prominent white man) - and interned "indefinitely" in a German concentration camp by Nazidom as it rises to power in the early 1930s.
This is a historical possibility we'd not thought of. Yet Williams, no stranger to historical fiction (see, for example, his novel CAPTAIN BLACKMAN), footnotes his text with incidences of real life black jazz musicians detained by the Nazis prior to the outbreak of World War II; I'd never heard about this.
John A. Williams has been publishing books, mostly novels, over 40 years. His heroes have tended to be "manly" black men: uncompromising, heterosexual, hard-loving, hard-drinking and cigarette-smoking urbane sophisticates. I've always taken them to be stand-ins for the author himself; perhaps they represent the image of manliness of a day not quite gone by.
Stepping out of his usual bounds and into Clifford's skin, however, Williams exhibits an even greater sense of manhood, an empathetic virility. Clifford may not fathom how he managed to get himself into such a mess, but he doesn't make excuses.
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Format: Paperback
My book club chose this for a future discussion. I do not usually judge a book by its cover, but this one seemed somewhat intriguing and I could not put this book down. After reading of the suffering of Clifford Pepperidge during the awesome days of the Holocaust and concentration camps, I was thankful for the author's efforts in portraying this aspect of our culture as it relates to the Jews. The suffering endured by the Jews is known to be incredulous, but Blacks were not thought to be a part of this life. Clifford's love for music was the glue that kept his sanity throughout this ordeal. The author's portrayal and Clifford's coping with his homosexuality, Dieter Lange, Anna, and the likes is insurmountable. You find yourself asking, "how much more suffering can he endure?" The author's ability to give you hope throughout is painfully good.
I don't want to mislead you, this is a sad story, but one that has enlightened me for the better of understanding our race's (African-American, Black, Negro, Colored) consistency with coping skills under extreme and diverse circumstances.
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It took me twenty years to finally pull Isaac Bashevis Singer's novel, Shosha, about Jews and the Holocaust from my bookcase and read it. One week later I had finished it and moved on to read Clifford's Blues. Two compelling and distinctive plys coil together to offer up complementary perspectives on the rise of Nazism in Germany. Singer puts a face on pre-World War II European Jews, richly depicting what it meant to be a Jew in western Europe in the years prior to and during the Holocaust. For most modern Americans this is a fairly familiar story.

Williams offers up a tale much less familiar. He introduces us to Clifford Pepperidge, a gay, black, American jazz musician who spends a dozen years incarcerated in Dachau prison, one of the many labeled undesirables who were captured as the Nazis rose to power. While other prisoners suffer the misery of prison barracks and captor abuse, Clifford sits in the comfortable home of a gay Nazi officer and his bovine German wife. There as a servant, Pepperidge allows himself to be used sexually and musically by both husband and wife, the price of survival. In his daily interaction with other prisoners he sees that good men, those with the character and ethics to stand up for their fellows, rarely survive long. It is those who capitulate, who sink down into the muck, who lose their humanity, who will endure.

Williams provides us with a fascinating picture of how people react to power and influence, even when it clearly is evil. We see the German burger who blinds himself to the fate of those caught up in the hungry trap of Nazism. The German officer who grasps at every opportunity to accumulate wealth and power. The many who stumbled forward in step with a horror that grows ever larger and more malignant.
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Clifford's Blues is the story of an African American gay musician who is imprisoned in the labor camps of Germany during Hitler's reign. Clifford's story is revealed through his diary, which provides a powerful first person account of the atrocities and horrors of the prison camps. Although we are all familiar with the horrific experience of Jews in Nazi Germany, we sometimes fail to realize that many others (Africans, Gays, mulattos, Americans other German citizens) also suffered under the oppressive thumb of Hitler. Williams does an exemplary job of weaving the essence of music - Jazz and Blues - through the story. This blending of the arts demonstrates how through music one can find and celebrate life, no matter how dismal that life may be. For the more astute music connoisseur, I'm sure the songs and artists mentioned in the novel will add additional depth to the reading experience.
I would have liked to know how Cliff's life unfolds after his internment. Perhaps a follow-up novel is in order where the author compares Cliff's Nazi imprisonment with his experience as an African American gay man upon his return to America. If you are looking for another perspective on the Holocaust this book is definitely a good place to start. Clifford's Blues is both well written and researched. It's as much educational as it is entertaining. Well worth the time spent.
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