1. What is the book?
Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm
2. Who wrote it?
3. What is it about?
It is an evocation of the jazz that embodies one of the central characters, Circus Palmer, and many
of the lives he touches. Like the music, it is at turns sultry, melodious, brash, and reverberating.
4. Why did I read it?
As with many novels that capture my attention, the title drew me in first. It is from a quote by jazz
pioneer Jelly Roll Morton, epigraphed at the beginning of Warrell’s book. Since jazz is the ebb, flow,
and inspiration of the story, it recalled other authors who showcase its influence in their writing,
like James Baldwin and Toni Morrison.
Of course, I cannot think of jazz in literature without thinking of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and
so I imagined Circus as a contrast to that unnamed, young protagonist in Ellison’s novel. Where he
is unseen raging against the machinations of a post-World War II society whose traces on that
society are surreptitious, Circus, as an older Black man facing the harsh reality of fading talent and
opportunity, leaves haphazard traces of himself on everyone who sees, hears, and touches him.
Returning to the title, the novel’s sweetness is bittersweet; it is soft like a bruise; and its rhythm is as
syncopated as a murmuring heartbeat.
5. What do I think?
The most interesting part of Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm is the variety of perspectives from which
the novel unfolds. Warrell places Circus front and center, like a jazz soloist who affects a bevy of
women with his art, passions, fears, and outsized personality (his name is apt!), but the women and
their voices are the rhythm section that set the tempo and provide context for the solo’s existence.
The two recurring characters are Pia, Circus’ ex-wife, and his teenage daughter, Koko, and their
cadence is a jazz suite on the page. Part of the charm of the book is that all of the characters are
clearly flawed, which accentuates the beauty of their individual and collective struggles.
Another character, Maggie, figures prominently in Circus’ thoughts, as she and their unborn child
drive him to introspection, but her perspective is only seen in one chapter.
There are some uncomfortable scenes in the book, particularly Circus’ painful, meandering, and
philandering path to being a responsible and giving father to Koko, and I think Warrell
overcompensates for this by presenting a tidily packaged ending, but it does read like the music that
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