For all the distance of his time and place,” Greil Marcus wrote in Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ’n’ Roll Music, Robert Johnson “draws a natural response from many who outwardly could not be more different from him.” In 1975, Marcus must have been thinking of Cream (“Crossroads”), the Rolling Stones (“Love in Vain”), and Led Zeppelin (“Traveling Riverside Blues”), among other blues-fancying Brits. In 2008, the humor website Stuff White People Like attacked its target demographic for affecting to appreciate “Black Music That Black People Don’t Listen to Anymore.” Where Greil Marcus saw performers and audiences transported by something dark and elemental in country blues, today’s cynics see only theft and posturing.
It is a testament to the power of the blues that people are so proprietary about it, so anxious about who is allowed to like it and who is trespassing on hallowed ground. How much must one have suffered to be truly moved by Johnson’s “Stones in My Passway” or Son House’s “Death Letter”? Were the White Stripes college-rock pretenders or keepers of the flame? Are the Black Keys the real deal, or are they, like Blueshammer, the bar band from 2001’s Ghost World, perpetrating artistic vandalism?
Should a white Southerner with degrees from two Ivy League institutions presume to tell the tale of Robert Johnson, who casts so long a shadow over the Delta? A blurb for Snowden Wright’s debut, Play Pretty Blues, calls it “audacious.” Make that “asking for trouble.”
One approaches a book like this as he would a rock opera about John Henry, his morbid curiosity tempered with guarded hope. Any reimagining of a black hero’s life risks becoming a dutiful hagiography, or else a children’s picture book made grown-up by the inclusion of a hefty helping of sex and violence. Play Pretty Blues avoids these traps. It is an unlikely book, not only because it is a success but also because it makes a mercifully modest effort to get inside the head of its subject.
Like two famous debuts, Jeffrey Eugenides’s Virgin Suicides (1993) and Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End (2007), the tale is told in first-person plural, in this case by all six of Johnson’s wives. The book is framed as an effort on the part of Johnson’s women to “find” him, to resolve the blurrier myths into a faithful image of the man they knew and the one they did not. “At [a] country dance,” they recall in unison, “Robert Johnson, husband, father, legend, stood on a sawdust-covered stage, located the most attractive woman in the audience, and played his songs in her direction.”
Marcus put it in similar terms: “ ‘Stuff I got’ll bust your brains out, baby,’ [Johnson] sang in ‘Stop Breaking Down Blues,’ ‘it’ll make you lose your mind.’ Women crowded around him at the back country juke joints to find out if it was true, and no doubt it often was.”
That Johnson knew his way around a guitar and a woman is about all that Wright deigns to tell us about him. The rest, with apologies to Alex Ross, is noise, but the sound-cloud of biographical and period detail that Wright summons over Johnson is the joy of Play Pretty Blues. It is a typical criticism of historical fiction that it does not wear its research lightly. Wright’s research hangs heavier than a gabardine suit after a river baptism, but past a certain saturation point, all the dates, facts, and odd words stop making sense and become poetry. Wright is fond of lists. A list of words he squeezes from America’s past could fill a lexicon to make Marcus and other cultural historians holler with pure pleasure.
Wright’s is the old, weird America in which cryptic is carved into walls, jook doctors cure ills we are lucky never to have known, and catawampus is not a legendary animal but a term of art from country feng shui. Here, a queen of spades is a bedpost queen, a particular type of soil is buckshot, dip spit is ambeer, and a snood is a hair appliance. We hear about diddly-bows, truss rods, and the practice of soundproofing rooms by nailing up mattresses. There is a lot of this stuff. A little of it would not have gone nearly so far.
A few of the mysteries of Johnson’s brief life and times are cleared up. The thicket of crimes and infidelities encompassing his origin is hacked apart in Wright’s opening pages. Satan, the infernal ungulate held responsible in legend for Johnson’s outsize talent, makes no appearance in the book, but we do meet Ike Zinnerman, a jackleg preacher thought to have had a hot hand in it. Wright’s depictions of Johnson’s only two recording sessions are enough to reassure us that Johnson entered the pantheon in the usual way, by being an uncommonly skillful, hard-working musician. Listening to his recordings today, we know that it must be the gospel truth.
“Guitars were for men,” thinks Wright’s young hero, very early on. Much of what is for men is for securing the favors of women, and Play Pretty Blues gets this right. There is not much genuine mystery to the life of Robert Johnson. He died a brilliant twenty-seven-year-old musician who sought the ears of America and the beds of its women. Johnson’s genius came from the guilt he felt at mistreating the very women his genius attracted. If that be a pact with the Devil, it is one that has been on the books since the first man sang in his cave. One hopes that Wright has not paid too dearly for the insight.
Perusing the annals of twentieth-century American and British music, it can come as a shock to see what a truly young man’s (or woman’s) game it has been. Robert Johnson was the first member of the “27 Club,” a group of musicians who died at that age and are thought by the superstitious to have fallen prey to a sort of occult occupational hazard. Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, “Pigpen” McKernan, D. Boon, and Amy Winehouse are among the victims of this “curse.” In truth, one could draw up such a list for practically any age between eighteen and thirty. The “26 Club,” for example, would include Otis Redding, Gram Parsons, and Nick Drake.
Music, like math and chess, is one of the rare fields in which mastery can come shockingly young. That a one-hit wonder should be young is unremarkable. That Duane Allman should have made his whole contribution to the slide songbook by twenty-four is breathtaking. Today’s pop musicians start younger than ever, as if the studio executives are concerned about getting their money’s worth before the Devil can orchestrate a motorcycle accident, drug overdose, or plane crash. It can be tricky to guess who will stick around and who will flame out. The Canadian superstar Justin Bieber has been with us since 2008. This year, a month shy of his nineteenth birthday, Bieber became the subject of a novel. In that sense, at least, his immortality is guaranteed.
Granted, Teddy Wayne, the author of 2010’s Kapitoil, makes Bieber wear a thin disguise, a peach-fuzz moustache, in The Love Song of Jonny Valentine. Valentine—the name, more evocative of Ritchie Valens than of twenty-first-century pop stardom, is a definite misstep—is from St. Louis, Missouri, not London, Ontario. He is eleven, not fourteen, as Bieber was when the talent manager “Scooter” Braun plucked him from YouTube obscurity. His mother, Jane, is also his “momager.” Though he has a child’s love for video games, he occasionally displays the keen intellect and insight of an award-winning novelist.
If inhabiting the psyche of Robert Johnson sounds like a challenge—Wright was wise to seat himself with the spectators—then trying it with Justin Bieber must be plain old madness. Surely there is not much psyche to inhabit? When we meet Jonny, he is playing a video game, The Secret Land of Zenon, and trying to finagle a few hits of the sleep aid zolpidem from his mother. This is the kind of thing we might expect to find a stage-managed tween like Jonny doing, but Wayne, who could not otherwise tolerate three hundred pages with this idiot, makes him something of a savant:
From the song’s bass line, I could tell it was Madonna’s “Like a Virgin,” which has a dance groove that closely mimics “Billie Jean,” even though it’s directly influenced by that old Motown song “I Can’t Help Myself.” But pretty much everyone rips off bass lines.
“The label asked me to meet a radio producer for a drink,” [Jane] said. “And turn off the game.”
Zenon still plays background music when it’s paused, synthesized strings and light percussion, and I guess she could hear it over the Madonna. It’s savvy audience-loyalty retention strategy, because it reminds you that the world of Zenon is still there, always waiting for you to come back.
Bieber played his first Madison Square Garden show at sixteen, the age when most of us are flunking a parallel-parking test, but it is still hard to believe that his fictional analogue would speak in trade-journal jargon. For the most part, this sort of information feels like it has been included to show that Wayne has bothered to learn it. Yet, unlike the America of Play Pretty Blues, the music industry of Valentine is all too familiar. Reality is subordinated to PR. A child’s well-being is less important than the bottom line. Jonny has a bodyguard who is more like a father, a tutor who is more like a mother. His real mom, though traces of the maternal endure in her, is clearly trying to spin her son’s coattails into gold lamé.
The book follows Jonny on tour, during which there are a few mildly amusing mishaps. At his label’s insistence, he is forced to go on a very public, very artificial “date” with a young female singer, only to have his genuine interest in her icily rebuffed. His tour mates, the Latchkeys, a minor college-rock outfit, use him to get into an exclusive nightclub and then, of course, goad him into drinking alcohol. A video gets out, as videos do, and the insufferable band is deep-sixed by a morality clause and replaced with Christian rockers. Later, Jonny experiences a sobering brush with mortality when a heart-shaped swing, in which he must hover high above his audience, malfunctions momentarily.
There are some brutal moments, too. The producers of a television special about Jonny’s return to St. Louis, where he will visit his humble childhood home, blindside him with an appearance by the best friend he has never once contacted since becoming a star. The reader is painfully reminded of the normal childhood Jonny was never allowed to choose, and wonders if real-life pop stars know what they are missing.
The emotional crux of the book is Jonny’s desire to meet his missing bio-dad, who may or may not be trying to contact him through Internet message boards. Is “Albert Valentino” a pedophile, a kidnapper, a lunatic, or a heartsick father? The question Jonny does not ask until circumstances force him to: If Albert is Jonny’s father, how pure are his motives for emerging from the shadows?
The controlled chaos of the music business would have made a perfect backdrop for a book about Jonny’s quest for identity. As it stands, Jonny’s quest is a thematic crutch for a book that is on surer footing explaining the manufacture of modern celebrity.
There are simply too few surprises in Wayne’s book. This is a world one cannot not know, whether from television, the sidebars of news websites, or the tabloids in a grocery store check-out line. This is a world that wants to be known, even in its ugliest excesses. It is practically a selling point of today’s young stars that their childhoods have been stolen or destroyed. Wayne’s implicit criticisms of the music industry and child stardom lack teeth, because they are the very criticisms PR is designed to encourage: They keep us talking about the next big, bleating sacrificial lamb. Wayne’s depiction of star-world may have the ring of truth in every particular, but one cannot satirize a world by duplicating it. We wanted an original song. Wayne has given us karaoke.
If originality is your bag, if you prefer a hero who never existed but cried out to be invented, then Jimmy Rabbitte is the man for you. Rabbitte, the star of Roddy Doyle’s 1987 novel The Commitments, was a music lover–cum–band manager with a seemingly impossible dream, to reinvent and expand an undistinguished synthpop trio into the World’s Hardest Working Band, not to mention its only purveyor of what Jimmy, in a moment of inspiration, branded “Dublin soul”:
—The Irish are the niggers of Europe, lads.
They nearly gasped: it was so true.
—An’ Dubliners are the niggers of Ireland. The culchies have fuckin’ everythin’. An’ the Northside Dubliners are the niggers o’ Dublin. Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud.
Alan Parker’s 1991 adaptation, featuring Robert Arkins as Jimmy Rabbitte and Andrew Strong as the unforgettable lead singer Declan “Deco” Cuffe (his “voice a real deep growl that scraped against the throat and tongue on its way out”) is one of the greatest music movies ever made. One hopes that the inevitable film version of The Guts, Doyle’s new sequel to The Commitments, will have a fraction of its vitality, its full-throated celebration of musicophilia. Christ knows the book does.
“Vital” may be an odd way to describe a book that opens, as The Guts does, with its forty-seven-year-old hero struggling to reveal his bowel cancer diagnosis to his own father. This ought to be bleak and blasted territory. Luckily for the reader, Doyle’s sense of humor and his skill at reproducing the verbal rituals of male camaraderie keep the novel’s mood bouyant and, if the reader will pardon an Oprahfied phrase, life-affirming. Cancer or no, middle age or no, Jimmy Rabbitte has more heart and soul than a Suzuki piano lesson. Facing death, we fear the unknown. The only part that Jimmy seems to fear is the silence.
It is no surprise that a book about music-lovers should be rather short on plot but long, long, long on dialogue. Doyle’s has its own special musicality, which is even more pronounced if the reader is not himself Irish. The hard, clipped, frequently hilarious patter of Irishmen in pubs, an alien but intelligible language, sings out from every page of The Guts. Of course a book by Roddy Doyle would feature a character who jokes, of a website that “sells all sorts of Irish tack to the Yanks and Germans,” that its inventory includes “the Corrs’ pubic hair.” There is much low comedy that flirts, like French or Chaucerian fabliaux, with the higher purpose of illuminating the turbulent male psyche.
The plot, such as it is, consists of a scant few threads. In the boom years of the “Celtic Tiger,” Jimmy and his wife Aoife earned their living promoting old bands through a website, kelticpunk.com. In the recession, their modest business threatened by a younger generation’s indifference to old music and refusal to pay for any music at all, they endeavor to compile an anthology of lost Irish tunes to commemorate the 1932 Eucharistic Congress in Dublin. When they come up short, Jimmy attempts to make up the difference with an ill-considered hoax whose success is just this side of plausible.
There is a lot of reconnecting, as befits a light novel about mid-life crisis. Jimmy has an abortive affair with Imelda, one of the Commitments’ backup singers. Jimmy speaks to his brother, also a cancer survivor, for the first time in decades. Jimmy strives to be a better father in the wake of terrifying his children with the news of his illness. To the book’s greatest emotional effect, Jimmy revives his friendship with “Outspan,” another member of the old crew, who also happens to be terminally ill.
A final beer- and drug-addled romp at a music festival called the Electric Picnic, sort of an Irish Coachella, brings the gang’s indestructible love of music and insatiable lust for life full circle. Things end on a hopeful, even cinematically hopeful, note, but the reader who is disappointed or disgusted by this has been reading a different book for the past 300 pages. The Guts is a low-stakes story, a novel without grand ambition, but it sure as hell knows how to have a grand time.
Doyle waited roughly a quarter-century to release a sequel to The Commitments. Nicholson Baker’s Traveling Sprinkler is a sequel to The Anthologist, which he published in 2009. Four years is a long time if one is a middle-school girl awaiting the latest installment of Teenage Werewolves in Heat. As for The Anthologist, a book about an ineffectual, highly distractible poet called Paul Chowder, it was the least likely candidate for a sequel in all of contemporary fiction. Then again, one could argue that Baker needed another book to get to everything he left out of The Anthologist. Because nothing happened in The Anthologist.
Nothing much happens in Traveling Sprinkler, either. It is a book one avoids reading in public, lest someone ask for a quick synopsis:
“Let’s see. There’s a poet, and he’s trying to become a songwriter—self-taught, you know, blows a bunch of money he doesn’t really have on a guitar and mics and software. He’s also dabbling in cigar-smoking. And Quakerism. He talks a lot about pacifism and the immorality of drone warfare. Hates the CIA. His dream is to write a protest song, but it’s kind of a selfish dream, because he’s also trying to impress his ex-girlfriend, Roz—”
“Sorry, so what’s the title referring to?”
“Oh, he’s obsessed with this sprinkler thing, which is also an elaborate metaphor for his inability to stay on track, to stay focused on anything—”
By now your interlocutor will have invented some excuse to walk away. The thing about Baker’s books is that one often looks as odd for relishing them as Baker does for writing them (see also: The Mezzanine, U & I: A True Story, The Fermata). But it is very difficult not to enjoy a Baker book, even a B-side like Traveling Sprinkler. Part of Baker’s appeal is that he has the rock-star spirit. He may not sell out stadiums or dominate sales charts, but he is self-indulgent to a degree that could make Motley Crüe (see also: The Dirt) blush.
Simply put, Baker never gives a passing thought to what it is sensible to write about. He has his finger on the pulse of nothing but his own feverish brain. It is impossible not to assume that Paul Chowder’s life consists of 90% whatever Baker has been up to and 10% whatever fictional details Baker has scattered to throw us off the autobiographical scent. If Chowder drives a Kia Rio to Planet Fitness and parks next to an empty beer bottle, odds are Baker has done the same in the recent past. If Paul hates drones and despises the poet Archibald MacLeish for his role in creating the OSS, precursor to the CIA, you can bet that Baker does, too.
Baker is, after all, such an ardent and misguided pacifist that he wrote an entire book, 2008’s Human Smoke, denouncing America’s involvement in World War II. He is, despite an education at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, and formal training as a bassoonist, a hair-raisingly bad songwriter, just like Paul Chowder. (Should you doubt, look up Baker’s “Jeju Island Song” on YouTube.) Why, then, should Traveling Sprinkler be even intermittently endearing? Why not excruciating?
The answer lies in the book’s title. “I feel like a traveling sprinkler that’s gotten off the hose,” Paul says. “I don’t know where I’m going. I’m unprepared. Good for me.” This may not be good for Paul as an approach to life, but his wandering story is a fine example of where the mind may roam when given free rein. Readers may yawn at the trivia that comes standard with a Baker novel. There are musings on roosters, the peculiar sound of a deer’s bark, killing yellow jackets with boiling water, shrink-wrapping boats for fast cash, the pleasures of smoking versus chewing tobacco, even the bumper sticker on an insurance agent’s car. Yet, whenever Paul’s discursive monologue returns to his love of music and his desire to make music, however mediocre, of his own, we cannot help but come alive at the sound.
A mixtape, then, of Paul’s thoughts:
“My bassoon was a Heckel bassoon, made of maplewood, stained very dark, almost black, with a nickel-plated ring on top. . . . [I]t looked like a strange undersea plant, something that would live in the darkness of the Marianas Trench, near a toxic fumarole.”
“I’ve got ‘The Sunken Cathedral’ coming into my headphones right now. I’m listening to it all the way through. . . . You have to be careful not to overlisten to a piece of music you love, or you’ll wear it out—it has to last your whole life.”
“I so admire people who can sing. They tell their voice to go somewhere and it just goes there. Or they say, Don’t go there, go almost there and swerve up into position at the last second. There’s an unspeakable intelligence in what they’re doing.”
“The piano is tuned to be slightly out of tune—that’s part of what gives it its character. The mis-tuning is called ‘equal temperament.’ Also, wood is a complicated, tissuey substance, with columns of water in it, and sound travels from the piano wires through these long cellusonic resonators, and when it flares out into the auditorium, it’s . . . warmer, with a mist of imprecision around it. The timber has fogged the timbre, thereby creating the necessary out-of-tuneness, the naturalness, the untrue trueness of piano sound, or orchestral sound. That’s what music relies on: the singularity of every utterance.”
Take it from Baker. This is the guy who managed to work digs against climate change panic and Obamacare into a major-label book about a poet who thinks “I’m eating a burrito, baby, and I’m not killing anyone” is a viable song lyric. One of Paul Chowder’s friends warns him, “I know two, no, three people at Tufts who’ve taken up guitar. It’s the middle-aged thing to do. At faculty parties they sneak off and play . . . Blind Lemon Jefferson.” As if that could possibly stop Paul. He knows that his song will be singular. The stuff he’s got will bust his brains out and, if we have been listening, ours, too.