Keith Maillard

"The Clarinet Polka"

(Reviewed by Judi Clark Jun 18, 2003)

"I was feeling almost cheery, and I thought, well, shit, if I'm serious about this, I've got to get a set of new tires and a tune-up and a brake job. And I've got to give Vick some notice; it's only fair. And maybe I should call up Doren's old man and tell him I'm coming. And I was feeling really pleased with myself, you know, because I was being so sensible and responsible - even though the reality of it was that I hadn't managed to get out of bed yet."

The Clarinet Polka by Keith Maillard

When Jimmy Koprowski got out of the service in 1969, the plan was to go to Austin, Texas and wait for his two best buddies to get out and then the three of them would meet up at a bar. So Jimmy loads up his car with a cooler full of beer and a few bottles of Jack Daniels and starts driving. Damned if he doesn't end up back in his hometown of Raysburg, West Virginia living at this parent's house, with "Old Bullet Head," his father, watching and reminding him whenever he fails. Naturally, he keeps telling himself that he's going to get out of Raysburg and head to Texas, even after he learns that one of his buddies has been killed in the war.

With his father's help, he gets a job fixing TVs for Vick Dobranski; even at that he is more or less a screw up, disappearing for hours while on a call, just aimlessly driving around. Then one day, he's people watching at the mall and he sees "Mommy" a women wearing a miniskirt jumper with breasts way too large for the outfit. She's in a record store. So he sidles up next to her, talks his trash saying what he wants to do with her and to his amazement, she says O.K. She pays the record store employee to watch her kid, and goes with him to the back of his van. And this starts the "Jim and Connie" show, his affair with a married woman. Not the brightest move on his part, and surely he can't explain why he did this any better than he can explain anything else at that time in his life, such as, why he was still in Raysburg in the first place.

The Clarinet Polka is written in first person casual. Jimmy is narrating this story from an older person's perspective looking back on this crazy, miserable time in his life - and at one point, he reveals that he is now the age "old bullet head" was back in 1969. Thus there is a small degree of self-deprecation at his own actions, but more so, bewilderment as to why one would act like he did and make the decisions that he does. The narrative is good because he does his best to show his mindset at the time - like, how he didn't think his drinking was a problem, but at the same time giving us all the information so that we can see how it really was. And Jimmy is a good story teller sharing the details of what it was like growing up as a third generation Polish American in a tight community where everyone knows everyone from birth until death. When he tells this story, he paints a picture of the Ohio valley and its people in such as way that you feel like you really missed out by not being born into the Polish American community with all its traditions. If nothing else, it opens your eyes to the all the Polish American institutions right in one's own town.

Jimmy is basically a good guy, just directionless and seemingly unmindful of much going on around him (like when his best friend Georgie comes home from the service and he's got to be told to go visit him). Though he has always liked and had always been close to his little sister, he's not exactly paid any attention to her since he's been home from the service. One Friday night he realizes that they are both dateless, so on the spur of the moment he asks her to go out to eat with him. It's like he just remembered her, and it is at this point that Linda (and her project) moves from the background to the foreground in Jimmy's life.

Linda, is also living at home, but outside of that, she is very different from Jimmy in that she was a always a very good student, takes her Polish heritage seriously (she refused to learn English for years), and her church to heart. Plus she has a goal -- just not a usual one. Linda, who started to play piano when she was six, earned a music degree on scholarship. But as "old bullet head" points out, it is next to useless. Nevertheless, Linda's natural interest is in Ethnomusicology, specifically the history of Polish Polka music. She doesn't want to study it, she wants to play it. As such, she's been teaching herself to play the trumpet so she can form her own band.

"Okay, Linda," I said, "let me see if I got this right. You went to West Virginia University for four years and got yourself a degree in music so you could play polkas with Mary Jo Duda?"

Linda was laughing, but she was annoyed with me too, " So what are you going to do," I said, "accordion and trumpet duets?"

That's how I got the Polka Lecture. There was absolutely no way I could get out of it. We had to go home right after dinner, and I had to sit on the end of Linda's bed while she paced up and down yacking at me and played me a million polkas on her stereo. Because Mom and Dad were out, she played them really loud.

Mary Jo Duda, the "Polka Lady" is an unlikely companion for Linda in that she is an older brassy woman who has been playing accordion in and out of bands forever. But she's keen on starting up an all girl's Polka band with Linda. Because he happens to be there, Jimmy joins in Linda's search for band members. Linda and Jimmy get a lead on drummer Patty Pajaczkowski and they go to hear the all girl band she's playing with and end up recruiting her and the bass player, a non-Polish woman named Bev. Patty is "far out" in that she's already cut some records, has lived in a commune and on an Indian reservation, is fairly strung out on all kinds of drugs and sports a tattoo. Patty is a good drummer though and deep down, there is no running away from it; Patty comes from a good Polish family and grew up listening to Polka music. Patty's not one to commit, but the bass player, Bev, does that for the two of them.

So next they need a clarinet player. Through the high school music program, they recruit Czeslaw Dluwiecki's sixteen-year-old daughter, Janice. Czeslaw Dluwiecki is different than the rest of the Polish American community because he's first generation; he and his wife came over as DPs (Displaced Persons) after World War II. Rather than seeking the support of the community, they behave as if they are better than the rest and are raising their children as such, keeping whatever happened to them in the war years private. Long story short, Janice loves the idea of reaching back to her Polish heritage and playing the Polkas -- though she knows better than to tell her father just what kind of music she's playing with Linda. Janice is an unusual young girl. She speaks fluent Polish and has prodigal musical talent and is pitch perfect. Ironically, though she just can't read a note of music, which means that despite what her father wants, she's never going to music school. Whereas Linda is a "paper musician," Janice can play anything she hears once.

So begins, Tuesday night rehearsal with Mary Jo, Linda and Janice (Bev and Patty want a "paying gig" before they get involved). By default, Jimmy gets to chauffeur "Perfect," as he calls Janice, from school to their house and then later in the evening back to her home, as the Dluwiecki's don't live in town like the rest of them.

So Jimmy's life at this time revolves around Connie (when it's on), the Tuesday night rehearsals, his job with Vick and hanging out at the Polish American Club with his best friend Georgie, who is having his own difficult time assimilating back into the community after serving his time in Vietnam. Unlike Jimmy who was stationed in Guam, Georgie saw and participated in the action. The story moves along marked by the special Polish holidays and the subtle changes that happen as all of the relationships solidify and the band gets their first paying gig. Though the heart and the meat of this book is the Polka band -- these girls, especially Janice -- are fun and quirky. I swear I could hear them playing "Od miasteczka do miasteczka, Hej od miaxteczka do miasteczka pojedziemy..."

Though the novel does take a few dark turns. One is when Janice's parents finally share the war years with her and her brothers. (Nice juxtaposition with Vietnam and the big question of is it better to know or to not know). But the real turning point in all this is when we finally come to realize the extent of Jimmy's drinking problem. As is commonly known, an alcoholic has to hit bottom before they can seek to help themselves, and surely the bottom is very, very far down. We pull for Jimmy even through the worst. In the end we discover that this is a story about a lot of big things, but mostly it's a story of redemption, and a good old-fashioned Polish love story about a boy and girl.

The only question I had at the end of the book was how the Pulitzer Prize committee missed this novel. I don't mean that they had to award the big prize to it, but it seems to me this novel should have been at least shortlisted. Don't they often choose novels that are rich with lifelike characters and represent the quintessential American experience? That is essentially how I interpret the meaning of the words "national treasure" as Kirkus Reviews so aptly says about Maillard. But now that I'm working on Maillard's biography, I see it's because Maillard is no longer our national treasure, as it seems he immigrated to Canada in those Viet Nam War years and is now their citizen. I suppose that answers my question. Though, if it was up to me I'd go as far as to make him an honorary Polish American.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 16 reviews

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Bibliography: (with links to

* Sequel to The Knife in My Hands

Difficulty at the Beginning Quartet



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About the Author:

Keith MaillardKeith Maillard was born and raised in Wheeling, West Virginia the model for the fictional town of Raysburg. He emigrated to Canada in 1970 -- and became a Canadian citizen in 1976. He is the author of nine novels and one book of poetry. His novel Motet won the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize; Hazard Jones was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Literary Prize; and his 1999 novel, Gloria, was nominated for the Governor General’s Award., Maillard now lives in West Vancouver with his wife and two daughters and teaches creative writing at the University of British Columbia. He is currently working on a new novel which is set largely in the coalfields of southern West Virginia. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014