The Chet Baker section in But Beautiful, by Geoff Dyer

It’s not cheating to include this – Dyer wouldn’t care! I was going to pick that Wells Tower story everyone loves, but I kept coming back to But Beautiful. It’s a book about jazz, looking at the lives of famous jazz musicians like Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus and Duke Ellington, and it’s considered ‘genre-defying’ because it dips in and out of fact with striking nonchalance. Dyer calls it “imaginative criticism”. I remember pouring over this book with a pencil back almost twenty years ago, trying to figure out how Dyer wrote (and how I could copy it), even though now I think he could have toned it down here and there. 

The Chet Baker section haunts me the most. We all know Baker’s story – how a baby-faced, beautiful young man was ravaged by heroin addiction. As Dyer says: “Staring back at him was a face whose features seemed controlled by some internal gravity that pulled everything inward”. Dyer really goes for it with Baker’s destruction here, as well as his total shittiness to women. He was the king of ghosting, but the enjoyment here doesn’t come from this smart, knowing portrait of him, it comes from the flashes of beauty in Dyer’s writing. After all this time, I still love, “Chet’s face had the look of water swirling down the drain”, and “he was staring into the dead pool of coffee, ceiling lights glinting in it like a glimpse of bright fish”. You could write these lines into any story and they’d work fine, but here they just serve to pull you deeper into But Beautiful’s unforgettable, dream-like world.

Abacus, 1991

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