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Budapest music legend Bruce Lewis pens debut novel about the city’s crazy decade

A regular performer in the pubs and clubs of Budapest during the heady 1990s, Kentucky guitar picker Bruce Lewis has just published his first idiosyncratic novel, Joshua Fragmented. Switching settings between the Bluegrass State where he grew up and the Hungarian capital where he found his calling, Bruce has captured the crazy times of the post-’89 goldrush here. We caught up with the author and musician as he was conducting a round of interviews back on home turf.

If you were in Budapest in the 1990s, the chances are you bumped into Bruce Lewis. He may have been giving a show in his inimitable jazzy style at the Nothing But The Blues Pub, mingling with the offbeat regulars around the bar at the Sixtus or producing first-thought-best-thought missives for cult English-language newspaper Budapest Week.

The Wild East

I like to call us the ’89ers,” Bruce tells We Love Budapest from his home in Lexington, Kentucky. “We were Americans fleeing Reagan and Brits escaping the UK.”

Ever the friendly gent with a kind word for everyone in English or Hungarian, Bruce left Budapest in 2012, his memories still fresh of a city in transition.

I already had a lot written down on paper,” he says, thinking back to the suitcases full of scribbled notes which eventually became his 531-page tome, Joshua Fragmented, recently published by Kentucky-based Rabbit House Press.

The plot follows two main characters, bandmates Joshua Celeste and Crip Kovacs, “Jekyll and Hyde,” as Bruce puts it, the first an itinerant musician “given a name to represent something ethereal and something with historic weight, straight out of the Old Testament”.

Sundry Kentuckians, then various Hungarians and Budapest expats, some instantly recognisable to those living here at the time, hone into view as the camera pans either side of the Atlantic before coming to rest by Lake Balaton.

Detail is summoned up by means of dialogue, both inner and spoken, as well as notes and letters between the protagonists. The poems Bruce also considered including should make an equally evocative stand-alone work as and when ready.

Underpinned by a montage of Western cultural references – quotes from Go West by the Marx Brothers, Fire by Jimi Hendrix and The Maltese Falcon creep into the picture – Joshua Fragmented feels most at home amid the blue fields of Kentucky and the anything-goes new frontier of post-’89 Budapest.

As somebody once said, ‘memory is genius!’,” smiles Bruce, who sews architectural, historical and musical finery into the Budapest chapters of his book. Market barkers, naff Commie-themed pizzerias, the legendary Tilos az Á nightclub and Serbian draft dodgers all have walk-on roles in a filmic tableau whose era, bizarrely, feels even longer ago than the Socialist one it replaced.

It was a joy to write and tinker with,” says Bruce, citing Flaubert, Marcel Camus’ 1959 film Black Orpheus and the Pulitzer-Prize winning novel by Oscar Hijuelos, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love among his main influences as he pieced together a patchwork quilt of four decades past.

While Rabbit House Press seems the perfect fit for Joshua Fragmented, its portfolio partly Kentucky-centric, a Hungarian outlet for a local-language version of the book would seem like a logical next step. The cover art by Rick Bennett of this current edition, however, is a joy in any language.

Meanwhile, just like Joshua Celeste, Bruce has another gig to do, this time a Stevie Wonder night in Lexington on 6 November. Then there’s that book of poems

Joshua Fragmented
Available from Rabbit House Press and Amazon 


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